Senators attack Facebook and Twitter over labeling election misinformation

November 17, 2020, 10:30 PM UTC

Senators hammered the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday over how their services handled election misinformation.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee complained that warnings the companies affixed to posts, like those by President Trump that falsely claimed to have been reelected, were unfair. Democrats, in turn, said the labels didn’t go far enough and worried that leaving posts up would cause the public to doubt the democratic process. 

“As we speak, Donald Trump is waging an all-out war on the truth…and one of his weapons of choice in this disinformation war is social media,” Democratic New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker told the CEOs, who attended via a video call. “You have the tools to prevent him from weaponizing these platforms.” 

Twitter and Facebook both recently introduced the labels to combat the expected onslaught of election-related lies. The companies also included links in those warnings to more credible sources, such as official results and news articles.

Almost as soon as the labels appeared during the lead-up to the election, lawmakers went on the offensive against them. In fact, the labels are one rare thing that both parties agree on in their dislike, though for different reasons.

Tuesday’s hearing came three weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the Senate about Section 230, a law that protects Internet companies from being held liable for what their users post.

In their repeat performance, the CEOs defended their companies’ various election efforts, including labels that they said provided context to conversations. They insisted that their actions helped limit the spread of election misinformation. 

“We believe the labels point to a broader conversation so that people can see what’s happening with the election and with the results,” Twitter’s Dorsey responded under fire. 

Dorsey said Twitter applied more than 300,000 labels to tweets between Oct. 27 to Nov. 11, or 2.2% of all U.S. election tweets. Zuckerberg didn’t disclose how many labels Facebook added to election-related posts. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, suggested by adding labels, the two companies are choosing what is fact and fiction, and therefore are picking sides. He also criticized the companies for reducing the sharing of a New York Post story that claimed to connect Joe Biden to corruption in Ukraine.

In a rapid-fire exchange with Dorsey, Cruz questioned Twitter’s decision to attach a label to posts claiming voter fraud that says voter fraud is “exceedingly rare” in the U.S. “That’s not linking to a broader conversation; that’s taking a disputed policy decision,” he said.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska argued that the companies are taking sides by labeling posts by conservatives as misinformation, but then don’t do the same for Democrats. He claimed that the bias is because employees of both California-based companies are mostly liberals.

“You’re applying content moderation policies in seemingly a way that’s not objective,” Sasse said. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, questioned a number of instances that Twitter labeled Trump’s tweets for spreading election misinformation. She complained that the tweets weren’t labeled quickly enough and that their language was too weak.

Zuckerberg, in response to Feinstein’s attack on Twitter, pointed out that Facebook had added voter information atop users’ news feeds to steer them to credible sources, regardless of what their friends had posted on the service. 

“All taken together, we went really quite far to distribute reliable and accurate information,” Zuckerberg said. 

Facebook and Twitter plan to continue their election labeling policies through the Georgia runoff election in January, when the Senate majority will be determined.  

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