WASHINGTON — Republicans accused Twitter of being biased against conservatives on Wednesday, drawing rebukes from Democrats in a congressional hearing that illustrated how partisan lines are increasingly being drawn on social media.
The sparring focused on the testimony of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, who repeatedly denied the accusations during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Republicans grilled Mr. Dorsey, suggesting that Twitter’s algorithms suppress conservative viewpoints and discriminate against Republican voices.
Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, accused Republicans of sounding the alarm of bias for political gain. The idea that social media services exhibit a partisan slant, Mr. Doyle said, was a “load of crap.”
Yet the notion that social media companies might be intentionally choosing what political content to display was also pushed by the Trump Administration. Before the afternoon hearing, the Justice Department said Attorney General Jeff Sessions planned to hold a meeting with state attorneys general this month to examine how social media companies “may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.”
While Mr. Sessions has weighed in on free speech issues in the past, the scrutiny of social media pushes his agenda into a hotly contested and political area. Democrats and media law experts immediately pushed back.
“This is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the president’s misguided belief in such bias, which has been disproved time and again by legitimate researchers,” said Gigi Sohn, a former senior official at the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration.
The notion of censorship was further stoked by Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, who showed up on Capitol Hill to decry the treatment he has received from social media companies. Facebook and Google’s YouTube largely banned Mr. Jones and his website, Infowars, from their services last month.
“They are outright banning people and they are blocking conservatives involved in their own First Amendment political speech,” Mr. Jones said of Facebook and Google on Wednesday.
The theatrics capped a day of back-to-back hearings involving social media executives in Washington, in what has now become a frequent spectacle of tech companies facing the wrath of lawmakers. Facebook, Twitter and Google have dealt with criticism since the 2016 presidential election over the way that foreign agents used their platforms to influence the American electorate. Facebook has also grappled with the improper harvesting of user data by a voter-profiling company.
Those issues have prompted outrage from lawmakers, who hauled Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to Washington to testify in April.
The idea that Twitter, Facebook and Google might censor right-wing material has taken on particular prominence in recent weeks. It was promoted by President Trump, who last month said on Twitter that Google and the social media companies were squashing positive content about him. While the tech companies have denied those claims, the debate over the matter has grown louder, culminating in Wednesday’s hearing.
[Here’s what we know about how Google ranks news results.]
“It’s totally politics,” said Andrew Schwartzman, a lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center, of the House hearing. He said Republican lawmakers accused social media companies of bias but he doubted that Congress would want to create laws to monitor speech on the services.
“I don’t hear any discussion that suggests there are genuine legislative solutions to problems they are talking about,” Mr. Schwartzman said.
During the hearing, Mr. Dorsey repeatedly said that Twitter did not exhibit any bias against conservatives, echoing his previous denials. He also sidestepped taking sides in the partisan debate. When Kathy Castor, a Democrat of Florida, asked if he felt manipulated by Republican politicians for fund-raising purposes, Mr. Dorsey demurred.
“I do believe there is growing concern around power companies like ours hold,” he said. “People do see us as a digital public square and that comes with certain expectations.”
The House hearing contrasted with a morning session before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which included testimony from Mr. Dorsey and Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, on foreign influence in elections. In the Senate hearing, Republicans and Democrats credited Facebook and Twitter for efforts they have recently taken to reduce foreign meddling on their sites.
The lawmakers’ comments were a stark shift from the harsh criticism that they had leveled at the social media companies for months.
“After the election, you were reluctant to admit there was a problem,” said Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the committee and a Democrat of Virginia. “Each of you have come a long way with respect to recognizing the threat.”
Ms. Sandberg and Mr. Dorsey came offering with conciliatory messages, acknowledging during the 2.5-hour session that they were late to discover that foreign operatives had used their sites to spread false and divisive messages. Each outlined steps their companies have taken to root out disinformation and foreign influence campaigns, including creating new tech tools to identify fake accounts and hiring thousands of content monitors.
[Take our test to see if you can spot the deceptive Facebook post.]
Not all the tech companies were treated as kindly. Google, which had declined an invitation to send Larry Page, the chief executive of parent company Alphabet, drew the ire of lawmakers. An empty chair placed at the witness table pointedly illustrated Google’s absence.
“To the invisible witness, good morning to you,” said Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat of California. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican of Florida, said Google may not have shown up “because they are arrogant.”
The afternoon’s House hearing was far more political from the start. One lawmaker brought up Twitter’s decision to take down an anti-abortion post by Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican. Others said the company needed to hire people outside of San Francisco so its employees would have more diverse political perspectives.
“We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company had discriminated against conservatives,” Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, said to Mr. Dorsey.
During the hearing, House Republicans pressed Mr. Dorsey about the way Twitter’s systems treat conservative voices, including the methods by which the service suggests people to follow or selects certain users to be promoted.
Mr. Dorsey, in his prepared testimony — which he also posted on Twitter — called bias in algorithms an important, but complex, matter. “Our responsibility is to understand, measure, and reduce accidental bias due to factors such as the quality of the data used to train our algorithms,” he said.
Democrats slammed their Republican colleagues, saying they were promoting unproven allegations of bias for political fund-raising ahead of the midterms. Campaigns for House Leader Kevin McCarthy and President Trump have promoted their criticism of social media bias in online fund-raising ads.
Again and again, Mr. Dorsey rebuffed the claims that Twitter favors one political viewpoint over another. “Looking at the data, we analyzed tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate, and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Republican, even after our ranking and filtering of tweets has been applied,” he said at one point.
The contentiousness was evident more than an hour into the House hearing, when the right-wing activist Laura Loomer interrupted to accuse social media executives of censoring conservative voices. Holding up a cellphone on a stick to record herself, Ms. Loomer called on Mr. Trump to “save us.”
Her interruption was largely drowned out by Representative Billy Long, Republican of Missouri and a certified auctioneer, who started calling out prices as Ms. Loomer repeated her accusations at increasing volume. The bidding reached $550 before Ms. Loomer was escorted from the room, and Mr. Long ceased his patter and yielded the floor back to the House Committee.
Katie Benner and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from Washington and Kate Conger from San Francisco.
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