Big Tech Election Interference Hearing Interrupted by Senator’s Election Interference Scandal

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled, “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election, on Facebook and Twitter’s content moderation practices.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled, “Breaking the News: Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election, on Facebook and Twitter’s content moderation practices.
Photo: Hannah McKay (Getty Images)

Thank the gods for Lindsey Graham’s alleged spineless criminality. Without the presence of the senator from South Carolina, today’s Big Tech hearing on censorship and election interference on social media might’ve been completely off-topic.

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Back in October, Americans were staring down the horror of Election Day and Senator Graham was filled with righteous indignation over Twitter’s decision to block a link to a dubious New York Post story that appeared to be fulfilling the promise of ratfuckery that got President Trump impeached. Twitter eventually reversed the decision to block the story’s URL and apologize, but the Senate Judiciary Committee still voted to haul its CEO, Jack Dorsey, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in for another round of questioning. That hearing began this morning and it went about as well as other hearings on the general topic of social media censorship—that is to say, it was off-topic from the moment it started.

When Graham first entered a motion to subpoena Dorsey and Zuckerberg on Oct. 22, he gave his topics of discussion as the censorship of the New York Post article; “[a]ny other content moderation policies, practices, or actions that may interfere with or influence elections for federal office;” and the use of fact-checking labels on user posts. At the time, Graham was all fired up over a potential Trump reelection and the successful confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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As the hearing began earlier today, Graham seemed in a more conciliatory mood. There was no more talk about election interference. Instead, Graham opened with a long speech about social media being addictive. “Is that a good business practice,” Graham asked. “Maybe so. Does it create a health hazard over time? Something to look at.”

Graham then turned to the familiar GOP talking point that Twitter once left up a post from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini saying it’s okay to question the Holocaust while it flagged a post by Republican Nikki Haley. But for the most part, Graham seemed to enter the hearing with a shrugging indifference. He acknowledged that without the liability protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, then these companies “would have probably never been in existence.” Rather than citing specific changes that he would like to see made to Section 230—a law that protects internet platforms from liability for user-generated content—Graham lowered the ambitions of the proceedings saying that he hoped “in this hearing today that we can find a baseline of agreement that Section 230 needs to be changed.” He said that his advice would be “to allow the industry itself to develop best business practices” and suggested that lawmakers start looking at these companies through the “health prism” as some practices may need to be modified because these products “can become addictive.”

So, what happened to that whole idea of exploring the potential of social media content moderation having an improper influence on elections? Well, it’s possible that Graham is feeling a little shy about the subject after the Washington Post published an article in which Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, accused the senator of attempting to pressure him to “toss legally cast ballots” in certain counties in an effort to swing the state’s vote totals in favor of President Trump.

Raffensperger said his family has received death threats from the public as Trump and Graham have spread conspiracy theories about the Georgia election process, and the Post wrote that the Secretary reiterated “every accusation of fraud will be thoroughly investigated, but that there is currently no credible evidence that fraud occurred on a broad enough scale to affect the outcome of the election.”

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Graham has called Raffensperger’s assertion that his call was anything but proper “ridiculous” and he said that his main concern is, how to “protect the integrity of mail-in voting,” and to answer the question, “how does signature verification work?” Amost every state has both of these practices in one form or another.

Raffensperger told the Wall Street Journal that Graham suggested throwing out ballots from counties that had “higher rates of signature errors” but that— because doing such a thing would be illegal—the secretary’s staff agreed to ignore the senator.

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In the middle of today’s hearing, Graham had to step away to vote in what was announced as a 10-minute recess. The break ran for closer to 30 minutes and the senator answered some questions from reporters. Asked about his call with the Georgia Secretary of State, Graham said, “I talked to Arizona, I talked to Nevada,” as well. Confused, the secretaries of state in Arizona and Nevada quickly issued statements saying that they had not had any contact with Graham. The senator clarified that he spoke with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and said he “can’t remember who [he] talked to in Nevada. But what I’m trying to find out is how do you verify mail-in ballots.” The state procedures for verifying mail-in ballots should be available to any senator with an internet connection.

As for the senator’s stated goal of finding “a baseline of agreement that Section 230 needs to be changed” at the hearing today, he appears to have succeeded before it even started. Senators and witnesses alike took turns throughout the session saying that they think the law should be changed while offering few specific suggestions for accomplishing that. Still, Graham’s mission of exposing malevolent election interference appears to be on track.

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Twitter Debuts Coward Mode

One of the dwarf-kings that took one of Sauron’s Rings of Power, who remained mostly a mystery in Tolkien’s works, testifying before Congress in November 2020.

One of the dwarf-kings that took one of Sauron’s Rings of Power, who remained mostly a mystery in Tolkien’s works, testifying before Congress in November 2020.
Photo: Bill Clark-Pool (Getty Images)

Great news for chickens: It’s now easier than ever to pretend you never posted that cringe to Twitter, which is rolling out a new, Instagram Stories-like type of post that auto-deletes after 24 hours. These are called Fleets, which is slightly confusing until you realize it’s a bad pun.

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Fleets has already been tested in Brazil, India, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, according to TechCrunch, but Twitter is now expanding its availability to the worldwide userbase. Twitter bills the new feature as perfect for “that thing you didn’t Tweet but wanted to but didn’t but got so close but then were like nah,” which isn’t exactly a confidence builder.

Fleets can contain media, and Fleets can be embedded into Tweets. Other users can comment on Fleets with reaction emojis or reply via direct message. If any of this sounds even the tiniest bit confusing, you’re probably over 30, like me.

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Interestingly, the Stories-like feature was one of the demands of vampiric hedge fund goons who bought a minority stake in Twitter and tried to oust CEO Jack Dorsey earlier this year, according to TechCrunch. Elliott Management Group, the hedge fund in question, had cited the lack of such a feature as evidence Twitter wasn’t innovating enough. Fleets is intended to drive more activity among users that log in but rarely post due to the (correct) concern they could be roasted for posting something ill-advised.

Twitter is also gunning for Clubhouse, an invite-only, voice chat-based social media app favored by Silicon Valley venture capitalists and amateur race scientists. At Twitter, this means audio chat rooms where users can host discussions with one or multiple other users. It’s not clear how Twitter plans to moderate these discussions or prevent them from becoming a vehicle for harassment, bigotry, and scams. The company is not exactly known as a moderation success story—it’s struggled with its reputation as a haven for trolls, white supremacists, and the president for years. Audio is far more difficult to moderate than text, especially for the algorithms Twitter leans on to assist its human safety team. Clubhouse has already blundered its way into rows over anti-Semitism—and it has just a tiny fraction of Twitter’s estimated hundreds of millions of daily active users.

Twitter told TechCrunch it’s currently only testing the audio feature with vulnerable groups, including women:

“It’s critical that we get safety right—safety and people feeling comfortable in these spaces. We need to get that right in order for people to leverage live audio spaces in the ways we might imagine or in the ways that would be most helpful for them,” explained Twitter Staff Product Designer, Maya Gold Patterson, when introducing the feature in a briefing for reporters.

“So we’re going to do something a little different,” she continued. “We are going to launch this first experiment of spaces to a very small group of people — a group of people who are disproportionately impacted by abuse and harm on the platform: women and those from marginalized backgrounds,” she added.

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According to TechCrunch, the company is also working on audio tweets and direct messages.

Finally, Twitter Senior Product Manager Christine Su told the site it is working on ways to make its users nicer, such as “methods of private feedback on the platform, as well as private apologies, and forgiveness,” which definitely won’t turn into a weird form of clout or anything.

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In any case, good luck with the bad Fleets and whatever you do, definitely don’t develop a permanent mental association between Fleeting and the brand name of a saline-based enema solution.

The Big Winner of the Big Tech Senate Hearing Was Google’s Sundar Puckeye(sp?)

Sundar Pichai testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee via video chat.

Sundar Pichai testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee via video chat.
Screenshot: Gizmodo/C-Span

There was a big hearing in the Senate today regarding the future of online speech and the law that allows the web-as-we-know-it to function. Of the three big witnesses at the hearing, Google CEO Sundar Pichai may have expected to be in the hot seat given that his company was just slapped with an antitrust lawsuit by the DOJ. But no one even seemed to know Pichai’s name.

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The regulatory issues surrounding big tech have become so pressing and entangled that none of the marquee hearings that we get in Congress seem to move the dialogue forward. That’s not to say that senators or members of Congress are incapable of asking informed questions or learning about the issues. When politicians sit down with experts for a fact-finding hearing, like in a recent committee hearing on antitrust, they can be quite curious and open-minded. But those sessions don’t make headlines. And when you bring in the CEOs of Alphabet, Facebook, and Twitter, it’s time to put on a show.

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Today’s hearing was almost entirely dominated by senators trying to get in shots at Twitter’s Jack Dorsey or decrying the hearing itself as political theater ahead of the election. From the beginning, Chairman Roger Wicker repeatedly referred to the Google CEO as Sundar Puck-eye or Pick-eye rather than properly pronouncing it as Soon-dar Pee-chai. And sure, sometimes politicians have trouble with names, but basically everyone on the committee who elected to use Pichai’s name proceeded to mangle it. Lucky for him, Pichai was virtually ignored.

There was little substantive talk about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Known as “the 26 words that created the internet,” the clause gives liability protection to web services for content that is created on their platforms by third-party users. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expressing an increasing willingness to change the law, but they often express different goals for the changes. In a statement published ahead of today’s hearing, the digital activist group Fight for the Future published said that “blowing up Section 230 would be devastating for human rights and freedom of expression globally,” and such action would “make Big Tech monopolies like Facebook and Google even more powerful in the process.” That kind of statement might be useful if anyone at the hearing was arguing to blow up Section 230, but lawmakers mostly spent the time bringing up individual grievances.

Colorado Senator Cory Gardner got things rolling for the Republicans, asking the Twitter CEO, “Mr. Dorsey, do you believe that the Holocaust really happened?” No conversation that starts that way has ever produced good results. Gardner’s ultimate point was that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini is a holocaust denier and Twitter doesn’t slap him with fact-checking notes the way it has on a regular basis in recent weeks for President Trump. Dorsey explained that Twitter does not prohibit misinformation unless it falls into one of three different categories: manipulated media, public health, and election interference.

This exchange was admittedly confusing and required Dorsey to point out complications in Twitter’s policies that can make them baffling for the average user. Further questioning along this line continued from other senators throughout the session. One senator would point to one of the world’s worst dictators and say some variation on “you let this guy tweet but when our guy does it, you censor him.” This was tiresome and required Dorsey to explain various policies for world leaders and newsworthiness.

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Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently made news for contracting covid-19 and tweeting that democracy is antithetical to what Americans want for our country. Lee’s a total scumbag, but he did acknowledge to Dorsey that Twitter has “every single right to set your own terms of service and to interpret them and to make decisions about violations.” This is a fundamental thing that conservative critics don’t seem to want to acknowledge. These platforms can “censor” anything they want. If you want to argue that they are so powerful that they shouldn’t be allowed to moderate any legal speech, you’re moving more into an antitrust arena, and many conservatives have no interest in breaking up corporations.

Lee wanted to ask about the equal enforcement of policies. He went down the line asking each CEO if they can name one “high-profile” liberal who has been penalized on their networks for violating the rules. This was an imprecise question that requires subjective evaluation of someone being high-profile and knowledge of an individual’s personal ideology. None of the CEOs could think of an example that satisfied Lee and he declared victory, saying that this is evidence that enforcement of social media policies has a negative impact on conservatives that is unfair. This is not, in fact, evidence of anything. It suggests that high-profile liberals violate the ToS less often than conservatives, but it doesn’t even prove that theory.

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Senators Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn came in for the stupidest hour. Johnson asked Dorsey about a tweet in which a random person wrote:

Sen Ron Johnson is my neighbor and strangled our dog, Buttons, right in front of my 4 yr old son and 3 yr old daughter. The police refuse to investigate. This is a complete lie but important to retweet and note that there are more of my lies to come.

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Johnson said his attempts to get the tweet taken down failed, and Twitter doesn’t consider the tweet a violation of its policies. “How does that not affect civic integrity?” Johnson asked. Dorsey was a little confused and said he’d get back to the senator on that. Twitter did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but we’re just going to go ahead and guess that the tweet wasn’t considered in violation of anything because it’s about a public figure and specifically states that it is spreading a lie.

Blackburn finally gave Pichai his chance to shine. After asking Dorsey who elected the Ayatollah, Blackburn pivoted to the Google CEO. “Mr. Puhhcheye, is Blake Lemoine, one of your engineers, still working with you?” the senator asked with a growing smile. Pichai responded that he wasn’t sure if this was a current employee. Without missing a beat, Blackburn explained, “Okay, well, he has had very unkind things to say about me, and I was just wondering if you all had still kept him working there.”

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The question was related to a Google employee who got some attention from Breitbart in 2018 for his claims that Blackburn is a “terrorist.” I, personally, feel a level of terror at the notion that a sitting senator decided to target a private individual at a committee hearing because he said something mean about her two years ago, so we’re gonna say that the fact-check came back ‘True’ on that one.

You get the idea. It was another infuriating show, and we haven’t even mentioned Ted Cruz’s mad-as-hell meltdown.

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Often in these situations, we could point to the Democrats at least trying to talk about the main subject of the hearing, but that wasn’t the case today. Some asked on-topic questions but didn’t really seem to be trying to get anywhere. Most Democrats just wanted to note that this hearing is less than a week from the election and is clearly designed to focus attention on conservative gripes with social media—specifically, it seemed like one last desperate attempt to spotlight the New York Post’s shady story about Hunter Biden story that Twitter foolishly banned before reversing its decision.

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Senator Jon Tester lamented the fact that this hearing was rushed and off-topic. He excoriated his colleagues for spending a hearing constantly asking about the political affiliations of private employees and claimed it was clear the directive for the hearing came from the White House. “This is baloney, folks,” Tester exclaimed. “Get out the political garbage and let’s have the commerce hearing do its job.”

Senators will get a do-over on Nov. 17 when the Judiciary Committee takes another stab at the same subject.

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No, Twitter Did Not Stop Blocking URLs and ‘Hacked Content’

Illustration for article titled No, Twitter Did Not Stop Blocking URLs and Hacked Content

Screenshot: Twitter

Twitter claimed it was reversing course late Thursday and would no longer forbid users from tweeting links to websites containing hacked material—so long as the hackers themselves weren’t the ones doing the sharing. “We will no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” said Twitter general counsel Vijaya Gadde.

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The decision—a response to the conservative uproar over the blocking of an unverified, self-contradictory, and error-filled smear piece about a presidential candidate weeks before an election—would have brought Twitter’s policies more in line with how U.S. law treats journalists who republish stolen material; which is to say, it generally (but not always) protects their right to do so, provided they aren’t involved in the actual stealing.

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Unfortunately, it turns out Twitter’s decision to abolish the rule is being unequally applied, which is also sort of fitting. The rule itself was never fairly administered. The best obvious example of Twitter selectively enforcing the rule is WikiLeaks, which exists solely to publish stolen secrets; many, if not most, pilfered electronically.

If a reporter had emailed a Twitter spokesperson last week asking if the platforms bans accounts that disseminate hacked emails, the spokesperson would have said “yes, we do,” and offered a link to the company’s rules. But if the same reporter then asked, “Well, what about all those stolen Democratic emails from 2016?” the spokesperson would have quietly backed away from their keyboard and maybe gone outside for a smoke.

This is exactly how Twitter responded to me in June when it decided to prevent users from sharing links to the website ddosecrets.com. The website, run by a handful of journalists and transparency activists operating under the name DDoSecrets, is still banned by Twitter, even though CEO Jack Dorsey has claimed doing so is “wrong.” (Go ahead and try to tweet it yourself.) Twitter also banned the @DDoSecrets account, and it remains banned today.

Twitter took aggressive action against DDoSecrets for publishing one of the largest repositories of leaked U.S. law enforcement files—some 270-gigabytes worth of documents from more than 200 police departments dating as far back as 1996. A decent portion, comprising things like outdated training manuals and old FBI bulletins, are completely benign, if not objectively boring.

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Crime is down, after all, and 90 percent of being a cop is learning how to cope with sitting on your ass all day.

After the announcement by Twitter on Thursday, I reached out to ask why the @DDoSecrets account was still suspended and why users are still banned from posting links to its website. Twitter did not respond. Not even to tell me it was “working on it.”

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I also asked why Twitter had banned users from tweeting links to another of DDoSecrets’ websites, AssangeLeaks.org, which doesn’t actually contain any stolen or hacked material. According to Lorax Horne, the site’s editor, Twitter banned the URL when the page displayed nothing but a countdown clock. Today it only offers links to 10-year-old chat logs—potentially evidence the U.S. government is using in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition case.

“No, they were not hacked,” Horne said of the chat logs. To no avail, DDoSecrets has filed multiple appeals seeking clarification on how Twitter’s rules are enforced.

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“They blocked our whole fucking website and every subsequent website we published,” said Horne. “Reddit also blocks our URL, now. But Twitter blocked us first, so get a special trophy.”

Twitter’s silence is presumably the result of having already gotten what it wanted: A slew of headlines this morning declaring something that is just patently untrue.

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Illustration for article titled No, Twitter Did Not Stop Blocking URLs and Hacked Content

Screenshot: Google News

This story will be updated if we hear back from Twitter.

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We Have a Date: Google, Facebook, and Twitter CEOs Will Testify Before Congress on Oct. 28

 Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, arrives for a hearing on May 6 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, arrives for a hearing on May 6 in Washington, D.C.

Less than a week before the 2020 presidential election, three of the biggest names in tech—Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey—will testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about a longstanding law that protects websites from liability for user-generated content.

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The committee unanimously voted to subpoena the men on Thursday. They’re scheduled to testify on Oct. 28, according to committee aides who spoke with Politico on Friday on the condition of anonymity. While the subpoenas are ready to go out, they will not be formally issued because the CEOs have voluntarily agreed to appear before the committee, one aide told the outlet.

Their testimony will address Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key legal shield that protects tech companies both large and small from liability for most of the content their users post online. Codified more than 20 years ago, Section 230 has become a flashpoint over the last few years for both political parties, with Republicans, including President Donald Trump, contending without evidence that major tech companies quietly censor conservative content and Democrats arguing that websites should lose their Section 230 protections entirely for hosting misleading political ads, among other offenses. According to Politico, the hearing will also touch on “data privacy and media consolidation.”

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The hearing date, which falls just six days before November’s contentious presidential election, was reached after lengthy deliberations, a committee aide said. The tech CEOs originally pushed for a more far-off date, but after Republican committee members refused, they agreed to testify voluntarily if the subpoena authorization vote passed.

“On the eve of a momentous and highly-charged election, it is imperative that this committee of jurisdiction and the American people receive a full accounting from the heads of these companies about their content moderation practices,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, said during Thursday’s session per the Wall Street Journal.

Both political parties are championing for integral changes to the legislation. Some proposals that have gained backing from both sides of the aisle include revisions to hold tech companies liable for user-generated content involving child exploitation or threats of violence, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The PACT Act, a bill that would compel tech companies to be more transparent about their moderation policies and remove illegal content, has also garnered bipartisan support.

This will be the second time this year that top tech executives will testify before Congress. Over the summer, the heads of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to address federal antitrust concerns.

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[Politico]