A Department of Justice spokesman said in a statement on Sept. 5 that US attorney general Jeff Sessions plans to convene a meeting with state attorneys over concerns tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are “hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.” The gathering is scheduled for September 25.
It might seem strange that a president is going after the platforms that helped him seize the US presidency. But during the last two years, Donald Trump, along with key Republicans, have relentlessly attacked institutions that can challenge their account of events, even without evidence of illegality or impropriety. The press has been a favorite target. Once again, it’s social media’s turn (Facebook has had to deal with disputed claims of conservative bias before, and met with leading conservatives and Republicans to quell their concerns).
The Trump Administration is unlikely to prove specific charges, but that’s not the point, Alex Abdo, a senior staff attorney at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, told Buzzfeed. It’s to mute and discredit outside authorities or channels that may pose political challenges for Trump. “There has been no allegation that the social media companies have violated the law in handling the speech on their platforms, and thus no apparent reason for the DOJ to become involved,” he said. “The DOJ’s intervention here appears to be an attack on free speech, not a defense of it.”
Ironically, the Federal Communications Commission’s “total repeal” of Obama-era net neutrality rules ended strong protections against any online provider selectively discriminating against content. Net neutrality rules ensure internet service providers do not block, slow, or otherwise discriminate against specific content and applications.
Net neutrality rules don’t directly apply to Twitter and Facebook, since they aren’t common carriers like internet service providers, which must carry web traffic to end users. But conservatives are claiming that these forums are silencing conservative voices and violating their First Amendment rights.
This week’s hearings (which one Democrat dismissed as “a load of crap” designed to stoke outrage and fundraising) gave ample opportunity for Republican representatives to air their grievances. The stance of GOP officials appears to support giving all speech equal treatment, even if it is demonstrably false or abusive. Twitter and Facebook made clear their algorithms filter for abusive behavior, not ideology, and both networks insisted they were “impartial” in regard to content on their platforms while making room for the need to police their forums and enforce codes of conduct.
That didn’t satisfy House committee members. “We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company has discriminated against conservatives,” said Republican representative Joe Barton of Texas, according to NPR. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey refuted this saying “no statistically significant difference” existed between the number of views of tweets by Democrats and Republicans. The critique was picked up by popular online conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who roamed the halls of the capitol on Sept. 5, accosting officials such as Republican senator Marco Rubio whom he accused of ignoring censorship and “purging of conservatives.” He later called Rubio a “frat boy,” a “snake,” and a “little gangster thug.” Jones was banned from much of Apple, YouTube and Facebook’s platforms in August.
As social media companies increasingly crack down on trolls and online abuse, prominent Republicans and conservatives are getting snagged in the dragnet, sometimes inadvertently. In May, Twitter rolled out updates to its algorithm so certain figures tied to “troll-like behaviors” (by themselves or others) would not auto-populate in the search bar. Twitter stated in a blog post that “people contributing to the healthy conversation will be more visible in conversations and search,” and all content would still be visible by clicking on “Show more replies” or once users adjusted their search settings.
The algorithm didn’t target individuals, but it excluded a number of prominent Republicans and well-known racist “alt-right” figures such as the organizer of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year that left one woman dead. A Twitter spokesperson told Vice at the time that “that our technology is based on account *behavior* not the content of Tweets.” Twitter later rolled back this change.
Still, this defense is unlikely to stop attacks from Trump. An interview with the president published this week raised the unfounded charge that social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were actually helping Trump’s Democratic rival. “I mean the true interference in the last election was that—if you look at all, virtually all of those companies are super liberal companies in favor of Hillary Clinton,” Trump told the conservative news site Daily Caller. In fact, eight US intelligence groups have agreed that “Russia conducted an unprecedented influence campaign to interfere in the U.S. electoral and political process” with a “clear preference for President-elect Trump.“
The DOJ’s announcement comes on the heels of Sept. 5 hearings in which executives from Twitter and Facebook were hauled before Congress to ask how they were dealing with foreign powers such as Russia using social media to sway US elections and promote propaganda. “We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us,” Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg said (paywall). Dorsey repeated the sentiment and vowed that ”impartiality is our guiding principle.” Both executives promised they were stepping up oversight of their services ahead of the 2018 midterms elections in the US.
But Republicans and Democrats now seem ready to take action.”I’m skeptical that, ultimately, you’ll be able to truly address this challenge on your own,” said Democrat senator Mark Warner on Sept 5. “Congress is going to have to take action here. The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end. Where we go from here is an open question.”