When Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) initially called for Tuesday’s hearing with the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter, it was done suddenly. It was done loudly. And it was done during the last few crucial weeks before the 2020 presidential election.
On October 15th, the two Republican senators held an impromptu press conference in the halls of Congress where they tore into Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey for the company’s decision to block linking out to a widely factually disputed article about Hunter Biden from the New York Post published on October 14th.
Cruz equated Twitter’s decision to “election interference,” telling reporters, “Never before have we seen active censorship of a major press publication with serious allegations of corruption of one of the two candidates for president.”
But when that hearing finally took place, the tone was much calmer. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary held a hearing with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, the end result of Graham’s and Cruz’s New York Post concerns. But with the pressure valve of the election fully released, the hearing struck an unusually libertarian tone, suggesting some Republicans may be cooling on the idea of heavy-handed tech regulation.
While many Republican senators have refused to publicly acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden as the incoming chief executive of the US, Tuesday demonstrated that they’re already beginning to address the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter as if Biden were already in office. Republicans, whose reelections were no longer beholden to President Donald Trump, largely argued in favor of the tech industry regulating itself. When the Senate Judiciary Committee teed up to question the tech CEOs Tuesday, their raucous methods of questioning on conservative bias fractured, and some of the senior senators took a more measured stance.
“My advice would be to allow the industry itself to develop best business practices to protect the sites against terrorism and child exploitation and other concerns,” Graham said as he closed out his opening statement Tuesday.
This was a sentiment echoed by less senior Republicans on the committee as well. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) criticized some of his colleagues like Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who were pushing for government intervention into social media moderation. “I especially think it’s odd that so many in my party are zealous to do this right now, when you would have an incoming administration of the other party that would be writing the rules and regulations about it.”
Seemingly, more traditionally conservative Republicans have begun to realize that their power over regulating Big Tech is drifting. Or maybe, this was a fight they never wanted to wage in the first place. Tuesday’s hearing around moderation followed a similar political plot most recently put into play throughout the 2018 data privacy battle. In the fallout of the 2016 presidential election and Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, Democrats raced to protect user data privacy, rolling out scores of legislation. Those efforts were blocked by Republicans who argued that any regulation that opened companies up to litigation or that allowed stricter state laws to overrule those placed by the federal government would go too far.
Still, the legislative threats themselves have proven at least partially effective in some cases. In 2017, Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and John McCain (R-AZ) filed their Honest Ads Act. If approved, the bill would require companies like Facebook and Google to keep copies of political ads they accepted and file them in an accessible public database. The bill was never voted into law, but Facebook, Google, and Twitter all agreed to act more transparently around political advertising on their own, albeit in nonuniform ways.
On Tuesday, both Zuckerberg and Dorsey agreed that the tech industry could do more on its own to set standards for content moderation, leaning primarily in the direction of transparency. Sasse asked the executives, “What qualitatively is changing in the way content moderation happens inside your organizations short of a new regulatory regime?”
Zuckerberg began his answer addressing transparency. “We’re already at the point where every quarter we issue a Community Standards enforcement report that basically details the prevalence of each category of harmful content and how effective we are at addressing it before people have to even report it to us.” He continued, “Over time, we would like to fill that out and have more detail on that and make it more robust.”
Dorsey echoed Zuckerberg’s answers. “We certainly need transparency around the process that we have and around the practice, and the outcomes of those moderations.”
Greater transparency around moderation decisions by social platforms has already been gaining steam over the last few months. Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr wrote an op-ed over the summer proposing that social media platforms send detailed reports on moderation decisions back to the agency.
On Tuesday, this appeared to be something Facebook and Twitter would be willing to do, if not forced, but on their own over the next few years. The 2020 election sparked momentum among conservatives to fight Big Tech’s alleged censorship. With the election now in the past and Joe Biden headed to the White House, some Republicans may have realized they have more important enemies than Twitter and Facebook.