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Is Republican Attack on Social Media Giants Part of an Effort to Invalidate Election Results?

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Lawmakers grilled the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter just days before Election Day on how they moderate hate speech, extremist content and election disinformation, including tweets from President Trump. Republicans have long accused Big Tech platforms of censoring conservative views, but tech policy expert Ramesh Srinivasan says the argument is shaped around talking points that are aimed at invalidating election results. “What we see coming from the Republicans is this argument that lacks any evidence, frankly, that there are systematic biases in terms of censorship, as well as algorithmic biases that skew against conservative talking points,” says Srinivasan, a professor at UCLA, where he also directs the Digital Cultures Lab. “In fact, in reality, the opposite is exactly what is true.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Just days ahead of Election Day, chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter were grilled on Capitol Hill about how they moderate hate speech, extremist content and election disinformation, including tweets from President Trump. The Senate Commerce Committee hearing was officially about, quote, “how best to preserve the internet as a forum for open discourse” and whether to change a decades-old law known as Section 230 that protects internet companies from legal liability for content generated by its users. But most Republican senators focused on allegations that the platforms systematically censor conservatives. This is Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas questioning Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear? And why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic super PAC, silencing views to the contrary of your political beliefs?

JACK DORSEY: We’re not doing that. And this is why I opened this hearing with calls for more transparency. We realize we need to earn trust more. We realize that more accountability is needed to show our intentions and to show the outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Senator Ted Cruz questioning Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, virtually. This is Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah questioning Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

SEN. MIKE LEE: Can you name for me one high-profile person or entity from a liberal ideology who you have censored and what particular action you took?

SUNDAR PICHAI: We have, you know, turned down ads from Priorities USA, from Vice President Biden’s campaign. We have had compliance issues with World Socialist Review, which is a left-leaning publication. I can give you several examples.

SEN. MIKE LEE: There is a disparity between the censorship — and again, I’m using that as a term of art, as I’ve defined it a moment ago — between the censorship of conservative and liberal points of view. And it’s an enormous disparity.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Republican Utah Senator Mike Lee questioning Google CEO Sundar Pichai. This comes as the progressive news organization Mother Jones recently reported Facebook tweaked its code to help right-wing publishers and throttle left-leaning sites. The Wall Street Journal reported Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally approved the plans.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats accused Republicans of politicizing the hearing, and questioned the three tech executives about their efforts to stop the spread of viral disinformation. This is Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: I want to note first that this hearing comes six days before Election Day, and it makes — I believe we’re politicizing and the Republican majority is politicizing what should actually not be a partisan topic. … When John McCain and I and Senator Warner introduced the Honest Ads Act, we got pushback from your company, others, and you were initially against it. Then we discussed this at a hearing. You’re for it. I appreciate that. And have you spent any of the money — I know you spent the most money — Facebook spent the most money ever lobbying last year. Have you spent any of the money trying to change or block the bill?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Senator, no.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: In the past two years?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: In fact, I have endorsed it publicly, and we’ve implemented it into our systems, even though it hasn’t become law. I’m a big supporter of the Honest Ads Act.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Have you done anything in the past to try to change it? No. Have you done anything to get it passed? Because we’re at a roadblock on it. And I do appreciate that you voluntarily implemented some of it, but have you voluntarily implemented the part of the Honest Ads Act where you fully disclose which groups of people are being targeted by political ads?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Senator, we have, I think, industry-leading transparency around political ads, and part of that is showing which audiences, in broad terms, ended up seeing the ads. And, of course, getting the right resolution on that is challenging without it becoming a privacy issue, but we’ve tried to do that and provide as much transparency as we can. And I think we’re currently leading in that area.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Ramesh Srinivasan, professor of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, where he directs the Digital Cultures Lab. He’s the author of the book Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.

Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you first summarize this hearing and what you think is most critical, what was raised and what you think was most problematic?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: [inaudible] here. I think what we see is astonishing timing being pushed forward by the Republicans and the administration. Note, you know, Democracy Now! itself covered this just a few days ago, the antitrust — or, the regulatory potential action pushed forward by the Department of Justice against Google just a few days ago.

But what we see occurring is a certain set of talking points which might be used by the Republicans and the administration as a basis for making claims to invalidate the election. There are claims being made, for years, without any basis or evidence, by President Trump that Google was responsible for millions of votes being cast against the Republicans, against him in 2016. So, basically, what we see coming from the Republicans is this argument that lacks any evidence, quite frankly, that there are systematic biases in terms of censorship, as well as algorithmic bias, that skew against conservative talking points and conservative perspectives, when in fact, in reality, the opposite is exactly what is true.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are trying to look at Section 230, which, you know, sort of is a proposal on the Communications Decency Act that regulates the extremist content. It normalizes it. It allows certain types of content to be able to be present on online platforms that may not be on other media channels, such as Democracy Now! itself.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ramesh, Senator Jon Tester, who spoke at yesterday’s hearing, said the hearing had been called at the directive of the White House. Do you think that’s plausible? And also, the fact that Donald Trump has used so liberally, frequently, almost hourly, the social media platform Twitter, and Twitter just recently blocked a couple of his posts. So, do you think that this hearing is driven in part by that, by that decision?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: I think there’s — thank you for that question, Nermeen. Absolutely. It seems highly likely that that’s possible, because Twitter has long been praised by the president as his mouthpiece to, quote-unquote, “directly reaching the people.” And we know that Twitter’s algorithms, much like Facebook’s, work to prioritize content that is likely to be sensational, that grabs people’s attention. This is what the tech companies call “maximizing audience engagement.”

So we know that social media technologies, which are basically designed to try to grab our attention as much as possible so they can maximize their ability to gather and extract data from us, are designed in a way to support the agendas of disinformation and the spectacle, really, that is put forth by this administration. So we have to ask very difficult questions about the timing of all of this and try to look at why. Why is this administration deciding to make this an issue right before the election? And I think there are very difficult questions and answers that we have to uncover related to that, that are politically motivated rather than evidence-based.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think, Ramesh, on the basis of this hearing, that social media, Big Tech, might alter the way that it deals with any kind of election dispute that might come following November 3rd?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: I’m certainly hopeful of that. Our Big Tech companies are private corporations that have monetized publicly funded investments that all of us have paid for as American taxpayers. And this is true across the board with other major corporate initiatives. I think it’s extremely important, moving forward, that we have an expansive, progressive Digital Bill of Rights, where there’s actual public governance and public audit of these tech platforms about how they make decisions about whose data they gather. And we need real regulatory action to ensure that they serve the public interest, because they actually rest on the backs of public subsidies and public investments. So, I think that this is an opportunity for us to push forward real progressive advances and legislation on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Srinivasan, this issue of the timing of this hearing, right before the election, a kind of opening salvo of President Trump warning Google and other of the social media companies, the Department of Justice filing a major lawsuit against Google last week. Can you talk more about what this is laying the groundwork for, in terms of invalidating the whole election?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: It’s potentially an explanation that can be used by the administration to make claims that the election was conducted under false pretenses because Big Tech is systematically biased against the president and his agenda. But nothing can be further from the truth, as we were just discussing. President Trump made the claim just some — you know, just over a year ago, that Google cost him upwards of 10 million votes that were lost, in his favor, toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, and even in higher number in 2018. There is absolutely no evidence for this claim whatsoever.

We know, if anything, when we look at the litany of examples of conspiracy theories, that we’re all reliant on Big Tech as we sit out this pandemic and future pandemics and climate crises, that these technology platforms, we are seeing again and again — and we see examples, like Cambridge Analytica, foreign interference, disinformation — all of this has skewed toward conservative, fringe and right-leaning content. So, actually, if anything, the most spectacular disinformation, which fuels Trump’s base and fuels the Trump agenda of disorientation and controversy, has skewed toward the right. So Trump has made these claims that are in fact the opposite of reality.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ramesh, what does it mean also for social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to be making decisions about what content is permissible, what content should be promoted and what content should be censored? Could you expand on what your Bill of Rights, Digital Bill of Rights, that you mentioned earlier, would change, and also the alternatives to the way in which these companies and the internet generally operate? You mentioned, for example, what’s happened in Oaxaca, in Mexico.

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You know, what we’ve really seen occur is the private takeover of corporations that are valued at — you know, we’re talking about nearly a trillion dollars for each of these Big Tech companies, and in some cases more — all of this built upon the backs of American taxpayers, right? And so, we don’t see — we see a pattern, again and again, where all of the costs are borne by society, all of the costs of private greed and a lack of accountability, and all of the profits — and in this case, incredible valuations — are privatized and are in the hands of shareholders. And so, this is a great opportunity for us, with this Digital Bill of Rights, or just more expansive, progressive, peoples-based legislation, for us to really fight for a digital world that also returns value to all of us as citizens, but also all of us as workers, the working class, the middle class and so on.

And that is the opposite of what is occurring, Nermeen. What we see occurring are platitudes that are offered to us, generally speaking, by the tech companies. We see a little bit more movement by Jack Dorsey in this last round, but not a lot. We see tech companies pretending — private tech companies pretending like they are the internet, when in fact they are private corporations that rest on the backs of the internet. We saw Sundar Pichai from Google do that, you know, kind of make that kind of claim again and again. What they usually offer us are — is “better” AI and, “Oh, we’ll fix the problem in-house, and we will be collaborative.” But there’s almost never any specifics. There is almost never any real transparency, as we just saw in these clips. There is almost never any audit.

So what we need, in a real progressive movement toward transforming tech in the public interest, are things like digital public infrastructure. We need a universal jobs guarantee. We need AI systems, if they are to be used at all, to be built and designed by we, the people, especially groups like — for example, movements like Black Lives Matter should take power over whether we use facial recognition and AI technologies. So what we really need is a transference of power and governance in the hands of people.

And so, this gives us an opportunity, as we see Big Tech spectacularly fail again and again and again and now be used as some sort of punching bag for this right-wing administration that relies on an absence of evidence. We have an opportunity to completely invert the system and transform it to support not just corporate welfare, but actually all of our interests as Americans. And we’re talking about the wealthiest companies in the history of the world. We are reliant on Big Tech platforms and Big Tech companies more than ever, you know, as we sit out this pandemic. And we see handouts, not just by Republicans, but by Democratic administrations, as you all have covered on Democracy Now!, to Big Tech companies as if somehow we are just giving them a blank check, without any governance or oversight or real accountability, to just basically technologize our future in whatever ways they choose to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ramesh Srinivasan, this is a conversation that we will continue at a future point. Professor Srinivasan teaches information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, where he also directs the Digital Cultures Lab. He’s author of the book Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.

When we come back, as millions of Americans plunge into pandemic poverty, the Senate has adjourned before passing another stimulus bill. Stay with us.

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