A flood of mis- and disinformation, conspiracy theories and violent threats flooded social media platforms in the months leading up to a deadly assault on the US Capitol on 6 January.
Baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and a persistent lie that the 2020 election was “stolen” – claims that fuelled the attack among Donald Trump’s supporters – were repeatedly flagged by social media companies on the former president’s social media accounts.
But at least two members of Congress who addressed the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter at a hearing on social media disinformation on 25 March shared “stop the steal” content, referencing the right-wing movement that surrounded election-related conspiracies.
Nearly a dozen GOP members of a House committee interrogating the company chiefs on Thursday voted to support overturning election results, encouraged by the former president’s claims.
None of them addressed election-related disinformation and conspiracy theories on the platforms.
During a five-hour-long hearing, Democrats grilled Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg about the persistence of misinformation on their platforms, but Republicans have insisted that the companies conflate “misinformation” with political speech objectionable to liberal Democrats – and that the companies’ attempts to curb the spread of false information amounts to censorship.
The circular debate over what is real and what is not “denies us a basic set of shared facts,” said Democratic US Rep Lizzie Fletcher.
Republicans – who have sought to target the liability shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – revived their long-running allegations that tech companies are suppressing right-wing voices.
Second-ranking House Republican Steve Scalise, who supported efforts in Congress to reject election results, accused platforms of an “anti-conservative bias”.
“We do not have a censorship department,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said.
Mr Scalise pressed Mr Dorsey on the company’s decision to block the circulation of an article from The New York Post alleging content recovered from a laptop that belonged to Hunter Biden. Twitter previously said the post violated the company’s policy about sharing hacked materials.
“We do make mistakes and our goal is to correct them as quickly as possible,” Mr Dorsey said, adding that the company does not “write policy according to any particular political leaning.”
Bob Latta, the ranking Republican on the House Communications and Technology subcommittee, opened his remarks alleging “Big Tech’s ever-increasing censorship of conservative voices and their commitment to serve the radical progressive agenda”.
In the wake of the Capitol riot, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube suspended Mr Trump, suggesting that the companies viewed his immense platform and persistent “stolen election” narrative as a threat.
But company officials have not previously revealed what roles, if any, they believe their networks have played creating an ecosystem of misinformation that propelled violence.
Their testimony during a House committee hearing on “social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation” marked their first appearance on the Hill following January’s assault.
“I believe that the former president should be responsible for his words and that the people who broke the law should be responsible for their actions,” Mr Zuckerberg said in his opening statement.
He said that Facebook did its “part to secure the integrity of the election, and then on January 6, President Trump gave a speech rejecting the results and calling on people to fight.”
“The attack on the Capitol was an outrage and I want to express my sympathy to all of the members, staff and Capitol workers who had to live through this disgraceful moment in our history, and I want to express my gratitude to the Capitol Police, who were on the frontlines in defence of our democracy,” he said.
But Mr Zuckerberg cast doubt on his company’s platforms’ responsibility for increased polarisation and political division in the US, saying that he believes the “division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart, and we need to reckon with that if we’re going to make progress.”
“The reality is our country is deeply divided right now, and that isn’t something that tech companies alone can fix,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
He pointed to the misinformation surrounding Spanish-language campaigns in Florida that was also “amplified on TV and in traditional news as well.”
“There was certainly some of this content on Facebook, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re building effective systems that can reduce the spread of that,” he said. “I think a lot of those systems performed well during this election cycle.”
Lawmakers had five-minute windows to press CEOs on a range of topics – Covid-19 conspiracy theories, false claims about the climate crisis, the dangers of children using social media and drug and human trafficking, among others.
But largely absent from the debate was the former president.
Instead, Democrats came armed with oversight proposals, allegations of profiting from disinformation, demands for civil rights protections and increased diversity on their staffs.
“You’re not passive bystanders” said Democratic US Rep Frank Pallone, who chairs the committee. “You’re not … nonprofits or religious organisations that are trying to do a good job for your humanity. You’re making money.”
US Rep Tvette Clarke said she plans to introduce a bill aimed at online civil rights protections, specifically to address social media-based targeted advertising to marginalised communities. US Rep Bobby Rush demanded Mr Dorsey produce a civil rights audit he requested in 2018, calling the Twitter CEO’s pledge an “empty promise”.
North Carolina’s GK Butterfield argued that the companies’ commitments to financial and social support for racial justice groups in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd are in stark contrast to their platforms being “successfully weaponised by racists”.
“Your companies have contributed to the spread of racism,” he said. “This is a moment that begins a transformation of the way you do business, and you must understand that perhaps a lack of diversity within your organisations has contributed to these failures.”
US Rep Doris Matsui asked the companies to address the rise in anti-Asian hate speech and violence, including hashtags like “China virus” – though the CEOs said that while they have policies in place to remove hateful conduct, they are reluctant to introduce sweeping bans on certain words without context.
“The rise of anti-Asian hate is a really big issue and something we need to be proactive about,” Mr Zuckerberg said. “If it’s combined with something that’s clearly hateful, we will take that down … We need to be clear about when someone is saying something because they’re using it in a hateful way versus when they’re denouncing it.”