Two images will endure from Wednesday’s congressional hearings on social media bias and misinformation. Neither one quite captures what the Republican leaders who convened the hearings had in mind.
First, far-right conspiracy monger Alex Jones hijacked a press interview with Marco Rubio outside the Senate hearing room, irritating the Republican senator so much that Rubio turned to him, glaring, and threatened to “take care of you myself.”
Later, alt-right provocateur Laura Loomer interrupted a House hearing and was escorted from the room, while Republican Rep. Billy Long of Missouri mocked her from the dais by performing an impressively authentic-sounding auctioneer’s call.
There’s nothing wrong with Republican politicians standing up to right-wing trolls or denying them the chance to spout their vitriol on Capitol Hill. Except for one awkward irony: The hearing from which Loomer was forcibly removed was motivated partly by Twitter’s alleged censorship of those very same obnoxious voices. Turns out it’s hard to focus one’s outrage at Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for silencing fringe figures while they’re being dragged out of the room.
The two hearings—one in the Senate, the second in the House—were meant to call tech executives to account for how their platforms amplify misinformation and for how they police online speech. Instead, the trolls stole the show—and ended up offering an object lesson in the limits of free speech.
The day began promisingly enough for Republicans eager to expose tech executives as liberal tools. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg appeared poised and polished, but Dorsey walked into the Senate Intelligence Committee looking like he’d just awoken on the grass at Coachella with a savage hangover and a new tattoo. Google, for its part, sent an empty chair, after the committee invited the company’s CEO and refused to accept its top corporate lawyer as a substitute.
But ultimately, Sandberg and Dorsey came off as thoughtful, serious, and decidedly nonideological. They handled questions about algorithmic bias and content moderation that by now have become familiar. Both confidently assured conservatives that their software doesn’t discriminate according to political views, which was easy to do, since it’s almost certainly true. (Social media’s real biases lie elsewhere.) And they sympathized with liberals about the unfair burden of proof that their platforms’ reporting processes place on victims of harassment.
Dorsey even handled a question about his appearance with self-deprecating aplomb. “You don’t look like what a CEO of Twitter should look like,” grumbled Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican. “My mom would agree with you,” Dorsey replied, smiling.
Google’s absence won’t be forgotten—particularly at a time when the company is under scrutiny for both its privacy practices and its ambitions in China. But all that was overshadowed by the troll circus once Jones, Loomer, and former Brietbart gnome Charles C. Johnson arrived. (Johnson recently sued Twitter, alleging that it violated his First Amendment rights when it suspended him for trying to raise money to “take out” civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson.)
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, in particular, provided a forum for the conservative backlash against Twitter that was fueled by its bumbling “shadow banning” policy and, to a lesser extent, its subsequent suspension of Jones. California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, has led the outcry against the company, charging in a July tweet that “social media is being rigged to censor conservatives.” He added, in all caps: “WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED.”
McCarthy might not be—but Loomer was; her inchoate hollering from the back of the room quickly triggered Capitol Hill’s own enforcement mechanisms. Who will hold hearings on the shameful censorship of conservative voices by security officers at House committee hearings?
Jones, meanwhile, neatly illustrated one of social media companies’ enduring conundrums by demonstrating how a motivated troll can use his own free-speech rights to quash the sort of civil debate—in this case, Rubio’s answer to a reporter’s tough question—that the First Amendment was intended to protect.
Rubio, for his part, found himself in the galling position of many a Twitter harassment victim when Jones provoked him to respond with what sounded a lot like a threat of physical violence. Imagine if Rubio had been arrested while Jones walked free, and you’ll understand the plight of activists who’ve found themselves suspended or banned from social media sites for fighting back against bigotry.
These hearings could have gone differently. At stake was a crusade by the likes of McCarthy, Sen. Ted Cruz, and, lately, the Trump administration to paint social media companies as politically compromised, potentially laying the groundwork for regulation. The hearings could have helped to galvanize Republican or even bipartisan sentiment against Big Tech.
But they didn’t. If anything, they may have left legislators on both sides of the aisle more sympathetic toward the challenge the social media companies face in moderating content. Which is unfortunate, in a way, because trolls like Jones are partly a problem of social media’s own creation.
If Congress really wants to scrutinize Silicon Valley’s algorithmic biases, it shouldn’t look for the ones that led to Jones’ ban. It should examine the ones that helped to make him so popular in the first place.