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House Republicans float online conspiracy theories in hearing about social media 'censorship'

The hearing highlights an ongoing battle over accusations of political bias in social media companies.
Image: Facebook, Twitter, And Google Executives Testify To House Judiciary Committee On Content Filtering Practices
Monika Bickert, the head of global policy management at Facebook, testifies to the House Judiciary Committee on July 17, 2018 in Washington, DC.Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images

Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday pushed executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter about purported political biases on their platforms — and used conspiracy theories from far-right websites to do so.

The hearing came a day after President Donald Trump was widely criticized for contradicting the U.S. intelligence community — and mentioning some conspiracies — at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

The hearing Tuesday highlights an ongoing battle between left-and right-leaning media figures and politicians over the impact big tech companies have on the information that Americans see. Facebook in particular has come under fire from conservatives for its perceived bias, and from liberals who claim the social network tips the scales toward conservatives in order to placate their claims.

Some of the committee members criticizing the social media companies asked about websites or stories that have been removed or limited in their reach, despite being based on unproven conspiracy theories or riddled with incorrect information.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R–Texas, accused Google of blocking searches to “Jesus, Chick-fil-A and the Catholic religion," none of which are blocked by Google. “Jesus” returns almost a billion results. In a since-deleted Facebook post circulated by several blogs, a Christian publisher accused Google of banning their advertisements because of the “faith we express.”

Google responded to the company, Concordia Publishing, by saying that the search giant does not allow specific users to be targeted with ads according to their faith, and that Google had not banned the content of the ad. It is unclear why Smith believed Google banned Chick-fil-A.

Rep. Steve King, R-Ia., asked why Gateway Pundit, which incorrectly implicated three different people for separate terror attacks last year, was losing traffic on Facebook. Gateway Pundit pushed a rumor that a Michigan man who was at a wedding 1,000 miles away was driving the car that slammed into a crowd at a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, killing one woman and injuring 19. The founder of the website was later sued for its coverage. Gateway Pundit also misidentified the gunman in the Las Vegas shooting rampage last October that left 58 dead, claiming he was a Democrat by a different name who was “associated with an anti-Trump army.” The post was later deleted.

Several Democratic lawmakers raised the question of why Congress was spending one of its final working days before a five-week August recess focusing on the “fantasy” that Facebook, YouTube and Twitter suppress conservative viewpoints.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., one of the loudest critics of the hearing, chastised his fellow committee members, telling them, “We continue to go down a road of pure fantasy.”

“While there are legitimate questions to be raised about social media companies’ practices in general, alleged anti-conservative bias is simply not one of them,” he said.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., questioned why the hearing was taking place at all, citing Trump’s Helsinki actions on Monday as putting the country in a “great moment of national peril.”

Of all the matters Congress should be addressing, "bullying Facebook” after the company apologized for throttling the reach of the pro-Trump video-bloggers Diamond and Silk shouldn’t be at the top of the agenda, Johnson said. Congress also shouldn’t be going after Twitter for pulling an ad from the U.S. Senate campaign of Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that claimed she “fought Planned Parenthood” and “stopped the sale of baby body parts,” he added.

Facebook has been dealing with accusations of bias since 2016, when Gizmodo wrote that people who worked on Facebook’s Trending Topics section — which it has since closed down — suppressed conservative content. Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation and propaganda about the 2016 U.S. election added to concerns that the company was not taking the necessary action to prevent outside actors from taking advantage of its platform.

Since then, Facebook has met numerous times with media companies, including a private meeting last week in which editors of publications like Buzzfeed expressed concerns that the social network is being overly deferential to conservatives, a move that may be backfiring and feeding into an unproven narrative that social media companies are purposefully suppressing conservative publishers while elevating left-leaning content, according to The Wall Street Journal. A source at the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect a relationship with Facebook confirmed The Journal’s report.

During the hearing Tuesday, several Democratic lawmakers addressed how Facebook has perpetuated the notion of its bias by firing its human news curators, hiring former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to consult on conservative biases and even funding a study to be run by a right-wing corporate lobbyist examining bias against conservatives on the platform.

"What concerns me is the political pressure that is apparently being brought to bear now on all of these entities and the suggestion they are buckling under this myth," Raskin said.