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Facebook and Twitter defend handling of US election misinformation in heated Senate hearing

The companies have been criticised for their handling of political content recently.

A screengrab of Mark Zuckerberg at today's hearing
A screengrab of Mark Zuckerberg at today's hearing
Image: PA Images

FACEBOOK AND TWITTER have defended their handling of misinformation during the recent US presidential election in their latest appearance at the country’s Senate.

The hearing, the second in less than a month, follows criticism of the social media companies for their handling of political content during the recent election.

The companies have been facing pressure to remove what many see as harmful misinformation around the elections, while also fighting claims of suppression of certain political views.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified remotely to the session, which was called to discuss “censorship and suppression of news articles” and the “handling of the 2020 election” by the platforms.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, chairing the Judiciary Committee hearing, warned the CEOs that new regulations are needed to ensure the social media giants are held responsible for decisions on removing, filtering or allowing content to remain.

“It seems like you’re the ultimate editor,” Graham said at the opening as he took aim at decisions by both platforms to limit the distribution of a New York Post article claiming to expose wrongdoing involving President-elect Joe Biden’s son during the campaign.

“When you have companies that have the power of governments [and] have far more power than traditional media outlets, something has to give.”

‘Megaphone for falsehoods’

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal also rebuked the companies for what he said was inadequate action on political misinformation by President Donald Trump.

“The president has used this megaphone to spread vicious falsehoods in an apparent attempt to overturn the will of voters,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said the companies had “power far exceeding the robber barons of the last Gilded Age” and have “profited hugely by strip mining data about our private lives and promoting hate speech and voter suppression”.

Republican Senator Mike Lee meanwhile denounced what he called “instances in which your platforms are taking a very distinctively partisan approach and not a neutral one to election related content moderation… just days before the election”.

From the other side, Blumenthal said that “Facebook, seems to have a record of making accommodations and caving to conservative pressure” on content policies.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein questioned the adequacy of Twitter’s labeling of unverified tweets such as those of Trump claiming an election victory.

“Does that label do enough to prevent the tweets harms when the tweet is still visible and is not accurate?” the California senator asked.

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However, both Dorsey and Zuckerberg defended their efforts to curb harmful misinformation during the election campaign.

“We strengthened our enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks, and other groups to help prevent them from using our platform to organise violence or civil unrest in the period after the election,” Zuckerberg said.

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He said Facebook removed false claims about polling conditions and displayed warnings on more than 150 million pieces of content flagged by independent fact-checkers.

The two CEOs also said they would study the spread of election misinformation while allowing independent academics to carry out similar research.

Dorsey also said that filtering at Twitter was not a result of bias, despite claims to the contrary by conservatives.

In filtering content, “all decisions are made without using political viewpoints, party affiliation, or political ideology,” Dorsey said in his testimony.

“Our Twitter rules are not based on ideology or a particular set of beliefs. We believe strongly in being impartial, and we strive to enforce our Twitter rules fairly.”

Both platforms have begun limiting the reach of many of Trump’s tweets, notably those in which the president rejected his election defeat or questioned the integrity of the voting process.

© AFP 2020

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