House Hearing On Social Media and Extremism

House Energy and Commerce Committee looked at the effects of social media on the U.S. especially in growing radicalization.

The House Energy and Commerce’s Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee held a hearing on the role social media plays in the proliferation of extremism. Democrats and Republicans continued to articulate different views of the causes and effects of social media in stoking hate and violence. Democrats focused more on white supremacist, racist, and anti-Semitic hate speech, while Republicans focused on hate speech from the left, particularly against law enforcement and Republican government officials. This hearing could serve as a precursor for legislation to reform 47 U.S.C. 230 (aka Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934).

Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) stated

  • Throughout our nation’s history, we have seen extremism undermine public faith in our institutions, incite violence, sow division, and spread hate speech. Whether it be the Ku Klux Klan, Neo Nazis or bullying of vulnerable individuals, these attacks are not new to Americans. What is different today is the way social media algorithms can amplify hate speech.
  • Despite many conveniences and benefits for communication, over time social media’s dark side has grown and divided Americans at a time when we need to pull together. As Big Tech developed the online ecosystem and monetized its functions to their enormous benefit, these companies have done little to protect Americans from the dangers lurking in the dark corners. Driven by profit and power, and in the face of obvious harms, these mega companies successfully convinced governments all over the world to leave them alone, lest we disturb the delicate garden they are tending.
  • Big Tech has helped divide our nation, and stoke genocide in others. Consider Myanmar, where we saw mass murder of the Rohingya people.  And these companies have profited at every turn. Consider the QAnon conspiracy theory that has thrived online for years now. Q followers believe that the entire world is controlled by a secret cabal of child abusers who will eventually drink the blood of victims. The FBI has linked the group to domestic terror and considers it a continuing terrorism threat.
  • I would like to commend our colleagues Adam Kinzinger, Tom Malinowski, and Denver Riggleman for confronting this threat head-on.
  • There is no doubt that controversy and extremism drive engagement, and therefore profits. Algorithms that amplify extremist views also amplifies profit for these platforms. A 911 conspiracy video has been seen 22 million times on Facebook in the last week.  Each view keeps eyeballs on the platform and dollars rolling in. Nowhere has Facebook been more negligent than in its oversight of its Group function.
  • Facebook Groups promoting misogyny have grown by 10%, anti-LGBT groups have grown by 22%, and groups promoting antisemitism have grown by 27%…in the past week.
  • In a recent interview, an engineer at Facebook said the group recommendation algorithm is “the scariest feature of the platform – the darkest manifestation.” And he continued, “A user enters one group, and Facebook essentially pigeonholes them into a lifestyle they can never really get out of.”
  • Next week I’ll be circulating draft legislation that aims to fundamentally alter these companies’ business models and give consumers and regulators recourse when these companies fail in their basic commitments to consumers. I hope you’ll all take a look.

Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said that as with any disruptive technology, social media has its faults and can cause real harm, especially if companies are not fulfilling their responsibilities. She hoped people would still recognize the internet as an overwhelming force for good, especially in challenging times. Rodgers said social media gives Americans a platform for their voices to be heard and keep people connected to their loved ones. She asserted it offers unlimited access to information and unlimited opportunities for innovation.

Rodgers asserted freedom of speech is central to American democracy, which is what sets the United States apart from nearly every other nation. She argued this bedrock principle is increasingly under attack. Rodgers conceded free speech is not an absolute right and there are exceptions such as harming others or one’s self. She expressed her extreme concern about platforms applying inconsistent moderating policies for their own purposes. Rodgers said whether this is an excuse for failing to enforce content standards fairly or by altering speech to settle scores with political or competitive opponents, there is no clearer example of a platform using its power for political purposes than Twitter, singling out President Donald Trump. Twitter, at the same time, has left up blatant violent threats by activists, Democratic candidates, and authoritarian leaders.

Rodgers noted that Twitter’s rules say they are intended to ensure all people can participate in public conversation freely and safely, but that’s not what we are seeing. Rodgers stated to further its leadership’s political agenda, Twitter has instead embraced an inconsistent application of its standards. She argued that for political speech one may disagree with, the answer should not be censorship. Rodgers contended the answer should always be more speech and harmful speech should be removed regardless of the political leanings of the speaker or the moderator.

Rodgers claimed Twitter has fallen well short of encouraging healthy discourse online. She said the following are on Twitter today, and unlike Trump, they have not been fact-checked or tagged for violation of standards by @Jack. The World Health Organization shared this propaganda from the CCP, quote: ‘Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.’ Rodgers declared that this is false.

Rodgers stated that another example is a well-known online activist on the left who has repeatedly doxxed and falsely accused innocent people of heinous crimes like falsely accusing a Texas state trooper of rape. He also accused an innocent man of murdering a 7-year old girl. She added death threats were sent to the man’s family and he ultimately took his own life.” Rodgers stated this online activist also used Twitter to threaten the lives of innocent police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but Twitter said this didn’t violate their standards. Rodgers stated this tweet is word-for-word from a candidate challenging Republican Congressman Brian Mast, and she tweeted; I quote: ‘is that really the new rule they want? Killing is okay if it’s a bad guy? Is it now open season on… Trump… Barr… Kavanaugh… Pompeo.” Rodgers asked what would happen if the President or any Republican said that about Democrats. She expressed her hope that  the Secret Service took this threat more seriously than Jack Dorsey.

Rodgers stated that bottom line: Twitter continues to tag the President’s tweets with increased frequency as we approach the election, but they have ignored violent threats against Republicans, allowed for propaganda pushed by the Chinese Communist Party, tolerated doxxing and the incitement of violence against police officers, and also left clear threats by the Supreme Leader of Iran go unchallenged.” She claimed that this begs the question, what is the point of their terms of services and content policies if Jack Dorsey intentionally applies them differently depending on who the user is. Rodgers argued that if Democrats actually cared about extremism they would call for Twitter to address threats from all political viewpoints.

Rutgers University Miler Center for Community Protection and Resiliency Fellow John Donohue argued:

  • The problem we face is that social unrest is being effectively organized in the social-cyber domain, into potential insurgencies, on the basis of memes and short messages hosted and fed by social media companies. This fact is both highly visible on the one hand and fundamentally invisible on the other because though it is ubiquitous, no single entity can contextualize the sheer scale of coded language and memes. Layered on that technical complexity is the legal obligations on law enforcement to ensure the constitutional protections on citizens’ free speech and assembly, at the same time as it tries to distinguish imminent threats to life and destruction of property from jokes. 7
  • America is at a cross roads, the intersection of constitutional rights and legitimate law enforcement public safety and civil society has never been more at risk by domestic actors as it is now as seditionists actively promote a revolution. However, I remain confident that America remains strong to its founding principles and recommend the following as possible paths forward.
  • Social media companies were slow to act during the rise of ISIS message amplification and recruitment activities. These companies cannot be alone in combatting extremist ideologies and accelerationists, but they are part of the solution. And legislation is needed to ensure those companies work collaboratively with civic leaders across the spectrum for a civil society.
  • Just as the internet is diffuse, the solution cannot reside in singular entity. With regard to extremist actions there needs to be better coordination among law enforcement intelligence capacities, supported by appropriate Department of Justice entities and willing or forced social media companies to rapidly respond to hate driven seditious rhetoric where the content and context clearly demonstrates unlawful activity is about to occur, is occurring or is being planned. Moreover, when there is an imminent threat to life social media platforms cannot be the sole arbiter of what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of community standards, nor what is appropriate to share with law enforcement or not. Lives depend on it. At the same time, as we protect democracy at a strategic level, our communities are routinely confronted with actual events, unfolding in real time. Those events, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre sometimes have enough lead-time to have law enforcement intervene, and protect life. Structures and policies must be strengthened and supported by the federal government and the social media platforms equally. Those efforts as I mentioned with the national fusion centers are a strong foundation for that effort.
  • These are fundamentally the traditions that now find themselves under direct attack by the extreme left and extreme right alike. How we ultimately move forward together as a country, as Americans, depends how we negotiate this moment in history.

Coalition for a Safer Web President Marc Ginsberg stated

  • Coalition for a Safer Web is on record urging Congress for the sake of our democracy and the safety of the American people, to end the immunity from content liability accorded social media companies, which has, by judicial extension, enabled fringe web supported radical and extremist websites to also claim the same immunity from content liability.
  • But we are realists and we simply do not envision in the foreseeable future a bi-partisan agreement to achieve this objective – even splitting off from content immunity the extremist incitement rags which pass as websites, including GAB, 4chan, 8kun, and the other scum of social media catering to terrorists and funneling Russian disinformation and misinformation into our political discourse.
  • That is why CSW developed a public/private sector solution to tackle this dilemma – a new Social Media Standards Board (SMSB).The SMSB would serve as a:
    • Transparent content moderation auditing organization to monitor compliance by social media companies of a new industry “code of conduct” developed with the participation of concerned citizens groups, social media companies, and the advertising industry – which is, after all, the industry with the most leverage over social media and which created a new Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) to accomplish this goal.
    • Forum to incubate and promote new technologies to assist social media companies to fulfill their own customer and vendor obligations to better manage and achieve verifiable commitments to de-platform extremist incitement, dis, and misinformation.
  • The SMSB is loosely modeled after the successful 1973 banking industry’s Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which was created precisely to harmonize the various standards (think customer terms of service) of banks and develop private sector regulatory mechanisms to hold banks to their industry and regulatory commitments.
  • The following is extracted from CSW’s SMSB proposal dated August 20, 2020 and attached to my testimony, which was also the subject of an article published in The Hill.
    • It envisions passage by Congress of an amendment to Section 230 delegating to the SMSB the power to suspend Section 230 immunity until a violating social media company restores its compliance with new industry code of conduct. The loss of Section 230 immunity would represent the ultimate penalty imposed on code violators for sustained violations. Lesser sanctions against social media companies imposed by the SMSB code could conceivably include: 1) de-certification from code compliance; 2) forfeiture of digital ad revenue; and 3) a referral by the SMSB for administrative action to the Federal Trade Commission.
    • Should the Subcommittee consider a SMSB worthy of further consideration I hope it will invite to testify representatives of GARM to discuss how the digital advertising industry intends to use its undeniable financial leverage it has to compel social media companies to abide by verifiable standards which protect their brand safety both in the United States and abroad.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photo by Merakist on Unsplash

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