The chief executives of Google, Facebook and Twitter are testifying at the House on Thursday about how disinformation spreads across their platforms, an issue that the tech companies were scrutinized for during the presidential election and after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
The hearing, held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is the first time that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sundar Pichai of Google are appearing before Congress during the Biden administration. President Biden has indicated that he is likely to be tough on the tech industry. That position, coupled with Democratic control of Congress, has raised liberal hopes that Washington will take steps to rein in Big Tech’s power and reach over the next few years.
The hearing is also be the first opportunity since the Jan. 6 Capitol riot for lawmakers to question the three men about the role their companies played in the event. The attack has made the issue of disinformation intensely personal for the lawmakers since those who participated in the riot have been linked to online conspiracy theories like QAnon.
Before the hearing, Democrats signaled in a memo that they were interested in questioning the executives about the Jan. 6 attacks, efforts by the right to undermine the results of the 2020 election and misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Republicans sent the executives letters this month asking them about the decisions to remove conservative personalities and stories from their platforms, including an October article in The New York Post about President Biden’s son Hunter.
Lawmakers have debated whether social media platforms’ business models encourage the spread of hate and disinformation by prioritizing content that will elicit user engagement, often by emphasizing salacious or divisive posts.
Some lawmakers will push for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that shields the platforms from lawsuits over their users’ posts. Lawmakers are trying to strip the protections in cases where the companies’ algorithms amplified certain illegal content. Others believe that the spread of disinformation could be stemmed with stronger antitrust laws, since the platforms are by far the major outlets for communicating publicly online.
“By now it’s painfully clear that neither the market nor public pressure will stop social media companies from elevating disinformation and extremism, so we have no choice but to legislate, and now it’s a question of how best to do it,” said Representative Frank Pallone, the New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the committee.
The tech executives are expected to play up their efforts to limit misinformation and redirect users to more reliable sources of information. They may also entertain the possibility of more regulation, in an effort to shape increasingly likely legislative changes rather than resist them outright.