President Donald Trump says Google and other tech companies are “treading on very, very troubled territory.” (Aug. 28)
SAN FRANCISCO – Top Silicon Valley executives will get grilled on Capitol Hill next week on how their companies police Russian interference in U.S. elections. Expect some pointed questions on how these companies police political speech, too.
Growing allegations that Facebook, Google and Twitter limit the reach of conservative voices and viewpoints on their platforms is the latest political crisis to engulf the technology industry.
Over the past year, censorship charges have become a conservative rallying cry, raised in multiple hearings on Capitol Hill. Now the attacks are ratcheting up, with some GOP leaders and now President Donald Trump using the hashtag #stopthebias to target left-leaning Silicon Valley ahead of the November midterm elections.
Why? It hits a bull’s eye with supporters whose opinion of social media has sunk to the level of mainstream media. A new poll from the Media Research Center conducted by McLaughlin & Associates found that 65 percent of self-described conservatives believe that social media companies intentionally censor the political right. Some Republicans have started using bias claims in fundraising pitches.
“If you’re a staunch conservative Trump supporter and don’t like CNN, you can switch the channel to Fox. But where do you switch the channel from Facebook or Google?” said Dan Schnur, professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications.
“Fake social” and “fake search” is now on the tips of conservative tongues the way “fake news” has been for the last few years, reports Axios’ Mike Allen. Donald Trump Jr. told Allen that if a conservative alternative to Facebook existed, he would urge Trump supporters to switch to it.
In such a tense, bitterly divided political climate, tech companies are taking these charges seriously. Facebook hired former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl to consider whether it suppresses conservative voices. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has met with prominent conservatives about bias.
Regulatory threats, donor requests
These defensive measures could help them head off threats of regulation. This week the Trump administration raised the prospect of tightening the screws on Google as a growing number of proposals to regulate big tech make the rounds in Washington. There’s not much the White House could do without the cooperation of Congress, but Trump has a knack for normalizing political ideas that were not previously part of the public discussion, political observers say.
On Tuesday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the Trump administration was “taking a look” at whether Google searches should be monitored by the federal government. Trump seemed to walk back that threat Wednesday. “We’re just going to see,” he said. “You know what we want? Not regulation. Fairness.”
But on Thursday, retiring Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked the Federal Trade Commission to reopen an antitrust investigation into “Google’s conduct in search and digital advertising.” The FTC ended a similar probe in 2013 before the big tech backlash in Washington. Google declined to comment.
And in a White House interview, Trump told Bloomberg that some people see an
“antitrust situation” with Facebook, Google and Amazon, but repeatedly denied to comment on whether he wants to break up these companies. “I mean, look, the conservatives have been treated very unfairly,” he said.
“The greater the uprising, the more likely there is to be some type of action to create some kind of competitive market in social media that now exists in cable TV,” Schnur said. “A generation ago, the morning newspaper and the evening news were seen more as public utilities than as partisan combatants. The people who run these social media companies very badly want to avoid that same fate.”
This week Trump used his Twitter bullhorn to amplify bias charges. Speaking to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, he said Google and other companies “silence a very large part of this country.”
As proof, Trump posted a video claiming Google plugged President Barack Obama’s State of the Union addresses on its home page but not his. Google denied it, backed up by screenshots showing it had promoted the speech.
The controversy touched off Tuesday after Trump sent early morning tweets accusing Google of manipulating search results to spread anti-Trump news and suppress pro-Trump news. Later Tuesday, Trump told reporters that in favoring liberal views Google, Facebook and Twitter are “treading on very, very troubled territory and they have to be careful.” Google responded that “search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.” Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.
The Trump campaign shared the president’s tweets with supporters to drum up donations. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who for months has slammed Silicon Valley for bias, is using the charged issue in fundraising appeals. He’s also pushing the #StopTheBias hashtag that the president tweeted this week.
The president is taking aim at the very platforms credited with his political rise to the Oval Office. Even today, he’s the single biggest spender on Facebook political ads, according to a recent study by New York University.
But this week’s gripes about Google and social media were singularly effective for Trump, abruptly changing the conversation from one of the darkest periods of his presidency – Michael Cohen’s plea deal, Paul Manafort’s conviction, and Trump’s reaction to the death of John McCain.
The timing of Trump’s attacks couldn’t be worse for tech companies. On Wednesday lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee will question Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during a hearing focused on Russian interference in U.S. elections, almost one year after Facebook, Google and Twitter first testified before Congress on the meddling. Separately, Dorsey will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The last time lower-level executives appeared before Congress, they were not well received, but the tech companies have a better story to tell this time. They’ve been aggressively rooting out foreign interference from Russia and Iran on their platforms, working closely with each other as well as security firms, law enforcement and intelligence officials to shut down threats. And after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was taken aback by repeated allegations of conservative censorship during April congressional hearings on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, they are preparing to field those questions, too.
With one notable exception. The Senate panel invited Google parent Alphabet CEO Larry Page and offered to accept Google CEO Sundar Pichai, but Google offered Kent Walker, its senior vice president for global affairs and a point person on election interference.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr turned down Google, saying Walker isn’t high ranking enough. Google says it has no plans to send anyone else, prompting both parties to criticize the no show. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Intelligence panel’s top Democrat, said Google is making a grave mistake. Senators may hold the hearing with an empty chair.
Read or Share this story: https://usat.ly/2PSmBO3