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House committee to grill social media executives on business practices

July 16, 2018

A House committee plans a second hearing this week on the filtering practices of social media companies, amid concerns that some users have been “shadow banned,” blocked or otherwise marginalized.

Executives with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, according to the committee’s announcement.

The focus of the hearing will be on purported lack of transparency and potential political bias in the filtering practices adopted by social media companies, the committee said. Just how “competition law” may be useful in addressing these concerns will also be part of the agenda.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and panel chairman, praised the revolutionary technology social media companies have employed to alter global forms of communication while also expressing reservations about exactly how the companies decide who gets free and unfettered use of the platforms.

“This same technology can be used to suppress a particular viewpoint and manipulate public opinion,” Mr. Goodlatte said in a statement released by the committee. “I am pleased that the leading social media companies have agree to send content management experts to answer questions on their content moderation practices and how they can be better stewards of free speech in the United States and abroad.”

Facebook’s Monika Bickert, head of global policy management, will be among the executives scheduled to appear before the Judiciary panel Tuesday, according to the committee’s announcement. Other executives scheduled to appear are Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy and government relations, and Nick Pickles, a senior strategist for Twitter, the committee said.

The social media giants have taken steps to reduce the amount of “fake news” or suspect-sourced material that can appear on their platforms. This movement has taken on more urgency amid charges Russian operatives manipulated the platforms to spread stories during the 2016 election, and President Trump’s repeated attacks against “fake news.”

But the mechanics of this effort have been called into question by some conservative users. Earlier this year, some complained that Twitter had launched a quiet “purge” of their accounts, or “shadow banned” them by preventing their tweets from reaching the broadest possible audience.

Similarly, because political opinions can often influence the perceived veracity of a story, questions have been raised about how site moderators can fairly and impartially determine what people or outfits will be given space on the hugely influential platforms.

Tuesday’s hearing comes after Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress in April. Since then, The Wall Street Journal has reported the social media juggernaut had allowed more mining of its vast warehouse of users’ information than had been previously disclosed.

Mr. Zuckerberg appeared after it was revealed that a British outfit, Cambridge Analytica, had mined the site for data it later used in contract work for the President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Facebook had also given broad access of users’ information to President Obama’s successful re-election bid in 2012.

Facebook already operates under a 2012 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission that required Facebook to give users “clear and prominent notice” and obtain their express consent before sharing information beyond their privacy settings. The company has insisted repeatedly it has not violated the consent decree.

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