Ted Cruz digs in for congressional battle over censorship on Twitter, Facebook – Houston Chronicle

WASHINGTON U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz set conservative Twitter on fire as he tore into Jack Dorsey, the platforms CEO, during a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, creating the sort of viral moment senators crave from such high-profile exchanges.

Facebook and Twitter and Google have massive power. They have a monopoly on public discourse in the online arena, Cruz told Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whom the Texas Republican and other GOP members of the committee had subpoenaed to address what they view as censorship and suppression by Big Tech during the 2020 election.

Your policies are applied in a partisan and selective manner, Cruz said, demanding that Dorsey and Zuckerberg produce data showing how often they flag or block Republican candidates and elected officials as opposed to Democrats.

What a moment, right-wing commentator Dinesh DSouza tweeted, sharing a clip from the hearing with his 1.9 million followers.

This is almost TOO GOOD, tweeted Dan Bongino, another conservative commentator, urging his 2.7 million followers to Watch Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey absolutely squirm in his chair as Ted Cruz goes full trial lawyer on him.

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As social media companies cracked down on misinformation during the election under pressure to prevent a repeat of 2016s Russian meddling they found themselves increasingly targeted by conservatives such as Cruz, who call it censorship when Twitter flags President Donald Trumps posts that falsely claim he won re-election, or when Facebook tries to stop its users from sharing a debunked story about President-elect Joe Bidens son.

Its a sign of how an area of bipartisan agreement the need to reform Big Tech has become increasingly politicized, worrying experts that it will be yet another effort mired in congressional bickering.

The fundamental question is what right does a social media platform have to label something posted on it as potentially untrue, said Chris Bronk, an expert in cyber geopolitics who is an associate professor at the University of Houston.

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Bronk said its become increasingly clear that reforms are needed to counter domestic hate groups and hostile foreign governments that use social media to ply the American public with disinformation.

But when the same politicians who regulate the industry are also being flagged for making false or misleading statements, Bronk sees little room for agreement.

I got a tweet this morning at seven whatever, the president put out there and it just said, I won the election. Is that true? said Bronk, a former foreign service officer with the State Department. The internet has allowed us to divorce ourselves from some sets of facts.

The debate centers on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which offers legal protections to online platforms that publish and circulate content created by others.

Cruz, Trump and Biden agree those protections need to go. But the reasons they cite couldnt be further apart.

Democrats such as Biden say social media platforms arent doing enough to combat misinformation and harmful content such as hate speech.

I recognize the steps theyre really baby steps that youve taken so far, and yet destructive, incendiary misinformation is still a scourge on both your platforms, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Dorsey and Zuckerberg during the committee hearing a proceeding that Blumenthal deemed a political sideshow, a public tarring and feathering.

Republicans, including Cruz, say Twitter and Facebook have already gone too far.

Theyve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences, Trump said this year as he signed an executive order targeting the protections in place. Trump said fact-checking attempts by the platforms are one of the greatest dangers (free speech) has faced in American history.

Experts say theres actually little evidence that social media platforms unfairly target those on the right and that available data actually indicates that conservative social media tends to get more traffic online. For instance, the New York Times reported that Trumps official Facebook page got 130 million reactions, shares and comments over a 30-day stretch in the final leg of the presidential race, compared with 18 million for Bidens page.

Trump similarly eclipsed Biden on Instagram, and the gaps on both sites widened as the race came to an end, the Times reported.

Part of the tension on Capitol Hill is the Republicans continue to push this false narrative that tech is anti-conservative, said Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has testified before the Senate and advised congressional offices on potential legislation. There is no data to support this. The data that is there is in the other direction and says conservatives dominate social media.

Farid said some important if small steps are being taken. The Judiciary Committee this year passed a bill that would amend Section 230 to allow federal and state claims against platforms hosting content that sexually exploits children.

Farid said the relatively narrow bill targets a very serious problem, but its one of many, many really bad problems on the internet, including hate speech and terrorism. Once those other issues are brought up, Farid said, Republicans start to push back.

Its easy to be supportive of legislation that protects 4-year-olds from being sexually assaulted, Farid said. When it comes to things outside of child sex abuse, the Republicans have a problem, because a lot of their folks live on the side of white supremacists. When we start talking about cracking down on hate speech, they hear Republicans.

But Farid also questioned the wisdom of scrapping Section 230 altogether, as Biden has advocated, and said regulations on the algorithms that platforms use to decide what content gets promoted to their users would be a better approach.

Part of the problem, he said, is that few lawmakers have a deep understanding of the industry, and even some of their more tech-savvy staffers dont seem to have a firm grasp on the issue.

Unfortunately a lot of these hearings are not substantive, Farid said. They are for show. Theyre like flexing muscles.

Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general, was flexing at the hearing with Dorsey and Zuckerberg.

CRUZ STEPS INTO RING WITH TWITTER CEO, HITS HIM WITH 5 LEGALLY DEVASTATING FINISHING MOVES, read the text on a video the conservative Washington Examiner shared, with clips from Cruzs questioning of Dorsey.

In the past, Cruz has called for a criminal investigation into Twitter, accusing the social media company of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran by providing social media accounts to Iranian leaders.

He has urged the top U.S. trade official to scrap language in trade agreements that Cruz said offers near-blanket legal immunity to technology companies.

And he has accused Google of abusing its monopoly power in an effort to censor political speech with which it disagrees.

Cruz, like many Republicans, has also joined Parler, a social media network catering to conservatives.

At the hearing, Cruz vowed to put Twitters policies to the test by tweeting out statements about voter fraud, including findings from the Commission on Federal Election Reform, a bipartisan organization founded in 2004 by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker.

After the hearing, Cruz tweeted to his 4.1 million followers:

Twitter Test #1: Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.

Twitter Test #2: Voter fraud is particularly possible where third party organizations, candidates, and political party activists are involved in handling absentee ballots.

Twitter Test #3: Voter fraud does exist. This is just one example, linking to a news report about a woman charged in Texas.

None of the tweets was flagged.

ben.wermund@chron.com

twitter.com/benjaminew

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Ted Cruz digs in for congressional battle over censorship on Twitter, Facebook - Houston Chronicle

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