If you haven’t sat down and watched some clips from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing with the CEOs of three major tech companies, I suggest you do so. It’s pretty glorious.
One of the key takeaways from Wednesday’s hearing is that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey either doesn’t care or didn’t actually think prepping for his virtual appearance was necessary. I would have expected the CEO of the second-biggest social media network in the world to have read the situation a little bit better.
The hearing was about Section 230, a 1990s law that allows internet platforms and providers to moderate content as they see fit.
Republicans have pushed for political neutrality guarantees in Section 230, arguing Big Tech’s liberal bias has led to conservative viewpoints being silenced or undermined.
Democrats, meanwhile, think platforms aren’t doing enough moderation and need to be more aggressive in pruning what they see as problematic content.
The hearing took place in the shadow of Twitter locking the New York Post out of its account for two weeks and counting because it published emails from a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden that heavily implied Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden knew about his son’s overseas entanglements despite his protestations to the contrary.
That lent a bit more resonance to one side of the argument and should have alerted Dorsey that maybe a bit of rehearsal might have been in order.
One of the answers he probably should have rehearsed, for instance, was why he let virulently anti-Semitic world leaders post bilge about Israel and the Jewish people without any sort of moderation while the Post got locked out of its account on the pretext that the materials from Hunter Biden’s laptop could have been hacked.
The biggest offender in this category is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. Khamenei’s tweets — in which he’s frequently called for violence against Israel, denied the Holocaust and called the Jewish state “#Covid1948,” in reference to the year of its independence — already came up when a Twitter representative appeared before Israel’s Knesset.
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One would think some high-level execs at Twitter could have sat Dorsey down before Wednesday and practiced some kind of rhetorical defense for allowing Khamenei’s missives to continue unchecked while the company fact-checks self-evidently satirical memes retweeted by President Donald Trump and censors his posts.
For all I know, this is as well as Jack Dorsey prepares. However, when GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado asked him if he believed the Holocaust happened, Dorsey probably should have acquitted himself a bit better.
Just so we’re clear, this is the tweet we’re talking about:
The next question to ask is: why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh) is allowed?
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) October 28, 2020
When the Twitter CEO said he believed the Holocaust happened and that anyone questioning its existence would be spreading misinformation, Gardner said Dorsey’s answers “surprise me and probably a lot of other Coloradans and Americans.”
“After all,” the senator said, “Iran’s ayatollah has done exactly this, questioning the Holocaust. And yet his tweets remain unflagged on Twitter’s platform.
“You and I agree that moderating your platform makes sense in certain respects. We don’t want the next terrorist finding inspiration on Twitter or certainly any platform, for that matter.
“But you’ve also decided to moderate certain content from influential world leaders. And I’d like to understand your decisions to do so a little bit better. Can you name any other instance of Twitter hiding or deleting a tweet from heads of state?”
“Not off the top of my head, but we have many examples across world leaders around the world,” Dorsey responded.
Again — probably should have had that one prepped, but never mind. Gardner moved on to Twitter’s dedication to combat misinformation on the platform, which seems oddly narrow.
“I know we’ve established and we agreed content moderation can have certain upsides, like combating terrorism, but Twitter has chosen to approach content moderation from the standpoint of combating misinformation as well,” the senator said. “So it’s strange to me that you’ve flagged the tweets from the president but haven’t hidden the ayatollah’s tweets on Holocaust denial or calls to wipe Israel off the map.”
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) November 9, 2014
Gardner was also surprised Dorsey “can’t recall off the top of your head hidden or deleted tweets from other world leaders. I would appreciate that list. I think it’s important that we all hear that.”
He then asked if “Twitter maintain[s] a formal list of certain accounts that you actively monitor for misinformation.”
“No, and we don’t have a policy against misinformation,” the Twitter CEO said. “We have a policy against misinformation in three categories, which are manipulated media; public health, specifically COVID; and civic integrity in election interference and voter suppression.
“That is all we have policy on for misleading information. We do not have policy or enforcement for any other types of misleading information that you’re mentioning.”
Twitter’s policies on the matter, in other words, can be described as amusingly finite.
Fighting COVID-19 misinformation could be an understandable and universal concern. However, Twitter’s major contribution to doing this seems to have been flagging several tweets by Trump, including one where he said the virus was less deadly than the seasonal flu and another where, after his own bout with COVID-19, he said he was “immune.”
A total and complete sign off from White House Doctors yesterday. That means I can’t get it (immune), and can’t give it. Very nice to know!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2020
The platform also locked Donald Trump Jr. out of his account for 12 hours in July after he retweeted a controversial video about hydroxychloroquine by a group calling itself America’s Frontline Doctors.
In all three of these instances, yes, this is dodgy information on COVID-19 at best. It still leaves me curious as to what Twitter’s calculus involving flagging world leaders’ tweets is, however, when that gets flagged and this doesn’t:
Some argue that the Zionist regime is a reality that the region must come to terms with. Today the #Covid_19 is a reality; should it be accepted or fought?!
The long-lasting virus of Zionism will be uprooted thanks to the determination and faith of the youth. #Covid1948
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 22, 2020
Which do you find more concerning?
When it comes to “manipulated media” and “civic integrity in election interference and voter suppression,” these again seem narrowly tailored to the American general election.
In the case of “manipulated media,” you don’t get any points for guessing the first person to be tagged was Trump. Nor will you be surprised that it’s been hilariously misapplied; in June, Twitter labeled a meme the president retweeted using a video of toddlers to make fun of CNN’s coverage as manipulated media. Anyone who believed it was actual CNN coverage would be too witless to operate a digital device, but this mattered not.
As for “civic integrity in election interference and voter suppression,” one suspects this is a thinly veiled way of saying anyone who critiques mail-in voting will get flagged.
What’s interesting is that all of these were formulated before Holocaust denial or any other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. I’m not in tech, but I would have thought that would have come first. In fact, I can think of a panoply of misinformation I would have started flagging and deleting before, or at least alongside, those three categories.
Apparently not Dorsey. When asked by Gardner whether “somebody denying the murder of millions of people or instigating violence against a country as a head of state is not categorically falling in any of those three misinformation or other categories Twitter has,” he said no.
“Not misinformation, but we do have other policies around incitement to violence, which may, some of the tweets that you mentioned or the examples that you’re mentioning, may fall afoul of,” Dorsey said. “But for misleading information, we’re focused on those three categories only.”
This is the leniency Twitter shows to Ayatollah Khamenei.
In the meantime, the New York Post’s Twitter account was still locked as of Friday morning thanks to the Hunter Biden story.
During another equally dense portion of his testimony, Dorsey said he had no evidence the story was false and that all the Post had to do was delete the link to the story and then post it again, since Twitter’s policies on “hacked” information have now changed. You follow that logic?
Meanwhile, Khamenei can tweet whatever he wants about the Holocaust or the state of Israel and Twitter won’t touch it.
Apparently, when it comes to platform moderation, how information was obtained from Hunter Biden’s hard drive is more problematic than a world leader spewing anti-Semitism.
Those are some priorities.
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