Congress and the platforms: The circus is back in town

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

While the president continues to rant and rave about conspiracies he believes have denied him the election, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to spend its valuable time holding yet another hearing into the alleged misbehavior of Facebook and Twitter. This comes less than a month after the Senate Commerce Committee held a very similar hearing into the two social platforms, a hearing that consisted mostly of members like Senator Ted Cruz making a show of badgering Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The main topic of conversation was why Twitter chose to block users from posting links to a New York Post story that contained unsubstantiated claims about a secret laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden (Twitter changed its policy before the hearing, allowing users to link to the story with a warning about its unverified status). This week’s hearing was equally shallow, and equally frustrating.

In part, that could be because the topic of the Senate Judiciary hearing was exactly the same as the Senate Commerce hearing—namely, the blocking and down-ranking of the New York Post story by Twitter and Facebook, and the fact that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects the platforms from liability for those kinds of decisions. So a lot of the same arguments were trotted out by many of the same people, including Senator Cruz, who again made a show of badgering Jack Dorsey about whether he would put a warning on a tweet the senator planned to post about alleged election fraud. “I don’t think it’s useful to get into hypotheticals,” Dorsey said, before adding that a warning probably wouldn’t be applied. “Well I’m going to test that, because I’m going to tweet that and see what you put on it,” Cruz blustered.

The fact that Twitter changed its policy not long after it blocked the Post story seemed to take at least some of the wind out of the Judiciary Committee’s sails. It’s a lot easier to get worked up about censorship if you’re talking about actually blocking a link or deactivating someone’s account, as opposed to just adding a small warning. That’s not to say Cruz didn’t try: after asking the question about whether his tweet on alleged election fraud would get a warning, the senator tried to argue that adding a warning makes Twitter into a publisher rather than a platform, and thus renders it ineligible to be protected by Section 230. “You’re a publisher when you’re doing that,” he said. “You’re entitled to take a policy position, but you don’t get to pretend you’re not a publisher and get a special benefit under Section 230 as a result.”

This has become a popular refrain on the part of some Republicans who are looking for ways to attack Twitter and Facebook for what they allege to be censorship of speech. But as Gilad Edelman at Wired noted, this is a deliberate misunderstanding of what Section 230 does—it doesn’t create any kind of distinction between platforms that don’t edit any of their content, and therefore get Section 230 protection, and “publishers” who do edit content and therefore aren’t protected. The whole rationale for Section 230—as one of its creators, Senator Ron Wyden, has pointed out a number of times—was to protect digital service providers of any kind from retaliation for moderating their content. In other words, the exact same thing that Cruz and some of his colleagues in Congress want to go after the platforms for doing. And most of the members of the committee seemed to ignore the fact that the First Amendment also gives Facebook and Twitter the right to engage in their own speech online.

There were a few bright spots in the hearing. Some of the Republican members of the committee admitted, as The Verge pointed out, that calling for government regulation of speech on a platform didn’t seem like a great idea, especially when those regulations might be created by a Democratic administration. Senator Ben Sasse said he thought it was odd that “so many in my party are zealous to do this right now, when you would have an incoming administration of the other party that would be writing the rules and regulations about it.” And while Senator Lindsay Graham criticized Twitter for acting as an editor in blocking the Post story, he also said in his opening statement that “my advice would be to allow the industry itself to develop best business practices to protect the sites against terrorism and child exploitation and other concerns.” Words that no doubt came as music to the ears of Dorsey and Zuckerberg.

Here’s more on the tech platforms:

What happens now: One topic at the Senate hearing was what happens to Donald Trump’s accounts when he is no longer president. Twitter in particular has stopped short of taking action against Trump’s tweets in some cases because he is the president and therefore what he says is considered newsworthy. Dorsey said once he leaves office, that will no longer be the case. “If an account suddenly is not a world leader anymore, that particular policy goes away,” he said. Zuckerberg, however, said there would be no change to the way Facebook moderates Trump’s posts after he leaves.

The House wins: The Senate Judiciary hearing this week will provide plenty of ammunition to those who see the House of Representatives as more thoughtful and diligent when it comes to tech criticism. After a year-long investigation into the four major digital platforms—Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google—the House Committee on Antitrust came out with a lengthy report detailing some of the anti-competitive behavior it alleges the platforms have engaged in. The report also proposed some remedies, including potentially a breakup of some of the companies, although this caused a rift with some of the Republican members of the committee.

YouTube missing: Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society who we’ve had discussions with before on CJR’s Galley platform, writes for Wired magazine about how curious it is that YouTube, Google’s video-hosting platform, doesn’t get more attention from the kind of Congressional hearings that Facebook and Twitter routinely have to sit through. “YouTube’s general public relations and governance policy over the years has been to be more opaque, keep its head down, keep quiet, and let the other platforms take the heat [and] it’s generally gotten away with it,” says Douek.

Antitrust remedies: After the House of Representatives came out with its report on the four digital giants and antitrust, CJR convened a virtual discussion series using our Galley discussion platform about what the government should do to deal with anti-competitive behavior. Experts who took part included Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute; Adrianne Jeffries of The Markup; Elettra Bietti, an SJD candidate at Harvard Law School and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center; Alex Kantrowitz, a former journalist with BuzzFeed who writes a newsletter called Big Technology, and Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor of law at Fordham University.

Other notable stories:

The New York Times writes about the debate in the book publishing industry over how to handle a potential Donald Trump memoir. “Some publishing executives worry their authors and staff might rebel, but they say their bigger concern would be ensuring the book’s accuracy,” the Times writes. “Several top executives said that publishing Mr. Trump could be perilous in a polarized media environment—to a degree that is far different from his books released before he became president—and that the possibilities of boycotts, libel lawsuits and social media campaigns outweighed the obvious financial benefits.”

Emily Atkin, who writes the newsletter Heated, writes about how one climate-change denier got around the Washington Post‘s commitment to facts, and managed to publish a 1,300-word screed about how all of the climate scientists are wrong. How? By publishing it as an ad, Atkin says. “Seek truth and minimize harm: these are the key principles of ethical journalism. But they’re also the key principles of ethical advertising. Would the Post allow full-page advertisement claiming cigarette smoking doesn’t cause cancer, or that mask-wearing doesn’t help contain coronavirus? If not, then what makes an advertisement containing climate denial any different?”

Leah Sottile writes for CJR about the journalists and others who covered the protests in Portland, Oregon for local media outlets, or even just for their Twitter followers. “Few of the reporters posting directly to social media delved deeper than what was happening on the streets… they seemed to be conscious that their audience didn’t require that of them.” Allissa Richardson—the author of a recent book, Bearing Witness While Black, about activists whose journalism careers were kick-started by witnessing police brutality and providing accounts using smartphones and social networks—calls these livestreamers the “first responders” of media.

In a “A Tale of Two Pandemics: Historical Insights on Persistent Racial Disparities,” Josh Neufeld uses the form of comics journalism to highlight a recent research article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The comic draws on the research article itself, along with additional sources — including interviews with co-authors Lakshmi Krishnan, S. Michelle Ogunwole and Lisa A. Cooper. The three medical doctors are the main characters of the comic, which explains racial health disparities and the spread of misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic and the 1918 influenza pandemic. The doctors’ speech-bubble quotes come directly from their interviews with Neufeld.

The Salt Lake Tribune announced that it has hired Sacramento Bee editor Lauren Gustus to be its new top editor. She becomes only the third woman to hold the post in the newspaper’s 150-year history. Paul Huntsman, chairman of the board of the nonprofit entity that owns the newspaper, told Tribune staffers Tuesday that Gustus was chosen unanimously after a months-long national search. Former editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce quit the Tribune in August, and there were reports that she clashed with Huntsman (whose family used to own the paper) over the way he wanted the Tribune to cover the governorship campaign of his brother Jon.

Nikki Usher, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, writes about how it’s dangerous to dismiss right-wing news outlets like Breitbart as a joke, because they do a good job of pretending to be reasonable, objective news providers, and that has sucked in a lot of news consumers. “These are professionals who know what they are doing and do it with all the symbolic markers and professionalism of their mainstream counterparts,” Usher says. “There is little true about the journalism being produced, but that does not mean journalists are not creating rationally argued content. These are well-made arguments with bad facts.”

Abe Streep writes for CJR about what happened when John Rodriguez—a local publisher in Pueblo, Colorado — sought public funding for a local alternative weekly newspaper he bought called the Pueblo Pulp. “I’m the asshole saying, ‘How many more white journalists can they fit at the capitol?’?” Rodriguez told Streep. At one point, strapped for cash, he decided the only route to survival was to ask for money from those he had criticized—the town councillors of Pueblo. Perhaps, he thought, Pueblo could emerge as a unique test case, a chance for locals to identify what was needed and to be the saviors of their own story.

YouTube is helping right-wing propaganda network PragerU fundraise with a November 16 video that attacks and misgenders trans athletes, according to a report from Media Matters. The video has raised over $19,000 for PragerU using the YouTube Giving program, the report says, a program that says nonprofits must follow the company’s community guidelines, which include protecting trans people from abuse. The video, titled “The End of Women’s Sports,” features a client of the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom repeatedly misgendering trans athletes, calling them “biological boys who said they were transgender girls.”

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