D.C. Trains Searing Spotlight on Social Media

Social media continued to be in the D.C. spotlight Thursday (Sept. 24) in a virtual hearing in the Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, as was the divide between Democrats and Republicans, though both have issues with how content is moderated.

The hearing came as the Trump Administration was busily lining up the various levers of government--the FCC, Congress and state attorneys general--to further his goal of regulating social media he asserts systematically censors conservative speech.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Image credit: Future)

Subcommittee chair Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said hate speech was not new, but that what was was the way social media can amplify it. She said social media's dark side has grown and divided Americans even as the need was greatest to work together. She signaled she would be introducing a bill next week to regulate social media.

She said social media companies, driven by profit and power, had done little to protect Americans from the dark corners of the web. She mocked the argument that the delicate internet garden" needed to be left alone to be tended
by their respective gardeners.

She said there was no doubt that extremism drives engagement, and profits. She said nowhere has Facebook been more negligent than in its oversight of its groups, which include groups promoting antisemitism and misogyny.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the parent Energy & Commerce Committee said extremists are an ever-present threat. He said the algorithms optimize engagement and amplify content often without regard to what the speech is. He said that right-wing extremism is the greatest domestic terror threat. "We have to act. This is not going to correct itself on its own."

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (Image credit: Future)

Ranking member Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (D-Ore.) took a different approach. Rogers said that while the internet "certainly has its faults," including censoring conservative speech, it was still an overwhelming force for good and a platform for connections, as well as providing unprecedented access to innovation and unlimited opportunities for innovation. She said she was all for striving for a better safer net, which included Twitter taking a more balanced approach to content moderation, freedom of speech is under attack, including by social media sites not enforcing fairly for altering speech to settle scores with political opponents.

She said that Twitter's flagging of the President's tweets while leaving speech of democratic radicals and authoritarians alone was a prime example.

Rogers alleged that Twitter continues to tag the President's tweets with increasing frequency as the election nears, while ignoring violent threats against Republicans and leaving up communist propaganda and threats against police officers. She said that does not add up to trust in Twitter. "What is the point of terms of service if Jack [a reference to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey] is consistently applying them differently.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the E&C ranking member, said social media had become a cancer on civility. He referenced Orson Welles' War of the Worlds scare and said these days misinformation is spread more quickly and is harder to recognize.

He took also aim at Twitter for not being able spot some misinformation related to violent protests.

Among the highlights of the hearing:

Rep. Schakowsky said that next week she plans to circulate a draft bill that "aims to fundamentally alter these companies' business models and give consumers and regulators recourse when they fail in their basic stated commitments to consumers." She said she hoped everyone would take a close look.

Walden said he had wanted the social media giant CEOs to be at the hearing Thursday to explain their practices--they were not. He also said he was unhappy that the majority memo for the hearing did not include concerns about online encouragement of the ambush-style killing of police.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.