There are many, many stories about the ill-fated collision of circumstances: the electric storm that sank the hydrogen-powered Hindenburg zeppelin, the Hollywood greed and water-logged scripts that produced the third, fourth and fifth Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Here’s another timely one: Twitter
The testimony is expected to be an event short on substance and long on drama. “Members of Congress will have the opportunity to ask serious questions to some of the most powerful people on the face of the planet. Instead, they—most notably the Republicans—will perform political kabuki theater in the lead up to the hotly contested election,” says Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “That’s probably a diss to kabuki theater, which is actually an art form.”
Dorsey and Zuckerberg will be in front of the GOP-led Senate Commerce Committee, which has pursued an aggressive timeline in coordinating the CEOs’ appearance. (Along with Dorsey and Zuckerberg, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai will also testify, though he is in a slightly different position than the other two. While Alphabet’s YouTube is certainly another huge social media platform, it hasn’t drawn the same type of Republican blowback recently, so Pichai will probably escape some of the blows that’ll fall on Dorsey and Zuckerberg.) The Republican leading Wednesday’s session, Sen. Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, authorized subpoenas for the CEOs in early October and urged that the testimony happen before the Nov. 3 election.
The putative reason for summoning the three men is to discuss Section 230, the 24-year-old federal legislation that grants broad immunity to online companies against lawsuits stemming from what appears on their websites and has allowed those businesses to grow from seedlings into multi-multi-billion-dollar firms.
Both sides of the aisle think Section 230 needs updating. Democrats believe social media companies need to do more to police misinformation and toxic content on their platforms and want to change Section 230 to force them to do that. Presidential nominee Joe Biden is on board, telling the New York Times
But the conversation between lawmakers and the CEOs on Wednesday won’t really be about Section 230. It’ll be much about the Republican senators having one final, public opportunity to accuse the platforms of suppressing conservative media. And they were bound to come in hot even if they hadn’t spent the past few weeks stewing about how Twitter and Facebook treated the Post’s unverified investigation into Biden’s son Hunter.
About two weeks ago, Twitter and Facebook reduced the spread of the Post’s initial story about Hunter, a move that drew immediate Republican condemnation. The Post’s reporting has sparked a blossoming alternate reality among conservative media outlets in which Biden and his son Hunter are at the center of a complex story, one possibly as ficitous as the Flying Dutchman. (Non-partisan outlets have largely been unable confirm the allegations against the Bidens.) Trump hopes the conspiracy theorizing will lead to a late boost in the polls, similar to what contributed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. It’s seen as the president’s best, last hope, and Republicans are none too pleased that Twitter and Facebook viewed the Post story as misinformation and tamped down on it.
The GOP also worries what could happen next week: that Twitter and Facebook could take further action to limit pro-Trump stories during the election or immediately after it. Twitter and Facebook have already publicly announced a number of steps around combating misinformation—much pro-Trump content is exactly that—including applying fact-check labels to posts, cutting back on political ads and rolling out information about how to vote.
These fears and perceived slights are what will fuel the dialogue in today’s hearing on Section 230 as senators come ready to unload fully on Zuckerberg and Dorsey. There’s some complicating irony to the situation. The GOP should be trying to leave Section 230 alone. “Revoking or modifying Section 230 is not going to get the president or conservatives what they want,” says Shannon McGregor, senior researcher at the Center of Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Instead, getting rid of Section 230 could force Facebook and Twitter to further cut back on what conservatives can say as they fear greater liability for the messages spread on the sites. “It just seems to be the threat that they could come up with instead of anything more sophisticated.”
A few people in Washington have offered more concrete suggestions. Republican Sen. John Thune, of South Dakota, and Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, of Hawaii, earlier in June introduced legislation that would change Section 230 and force social media to be more transparent with content moderation policies and move quickly to take down content deemed illegal by a court. And the bi-partisan Day One Project has a newly issued policy report on Section 230 authored by Matt Perault, Facebook’s former director of public policy and now the director of Duke University’s Center on Science and Technology Policy. Among other suggestions, the report advocates for the federal government to criminalize some types of toxic speech online, like the kind intended to supress votes and incite violence, and then hold digital businesses responsible for keeping those conversations off their platforms.
“Section 230 provides some really important protections for types of online expecression that are helpful in our world,” says Perault. “We have the mechanisms for dealing with some of the most problematic content without gutting Section 230.”
Once Dorsey and Zuckerberg get done testifying Wednesday, they only have a short respite. Next week is the election and the possible unrest afterward. Beyond that, they’re already have another date set with Washington: Following Facebook and Twitter’s halt on the Post’s Biden investigation, the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee issued fresh subpoenas for Dorsey and Zuckerberg after a unamious 12-0 vote, demanding the CEOs appear and justify their companies’ actions. They’ll do that—once again—two weeks after the presidential election on Nov. 17.