US Justice Department looks into social media firms over free speech

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The US Department of Justice and state attorneys general will meet this month to discuss concerns that social media platforms are “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas,” the department said on Wednesday.

Its statement did not name Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc, whose executives were called to testify in Congress on Wednesday, but the firms have been harshly criticized by President Donald Trump and some other Republicans for what they see as an effort to repress conservative voices.

Lawmakers also criticized Alphabet Inc’s Google for refusing to send top executives to testify in the Senate on foreign efforts to influence US politics, with just weeks before the November 6 congressional elections.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been looking into reported Russian efforts to influence US public opinion throughout Trump’s presidency, after US intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin had sought to boost his chances of winning the White House in 2016.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened the meeting “to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms,” Justice Department spokesman Devin
O’Malley said.

The meeting was set for September 25.

Shares of social media companies slipped on Wednesday as the executives appeared at congressional hearings, with Twitter off 5.7 percent and Facebook around 2.45 percent lower in late afternoon trading. Shares of Alphabet sank 1.2 percent.

In a House of Representatives hearing, Representative Greg Walden, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Twitter had made “mistakes” that, he said, minimized Republicans’ presence on the social media site, a practice conservatives have labeled “shadow banning.”

“Multiple members of Congress and the chairwoman of the Republican Party have seen their Twitter presences temporarily minimized in recent months, due to what you have claimed was a mistake in the algorithm,” he said.

Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey denied any deliberate attempt to target conservatives.

“Recently we failed our intended impartiality. Our algorithms were unfairly filtering 600,000 accounts, including some members of Congress, from our search auto-complete and latest results. We fixed it,” Dorsey said in his opening statement.

“We don’t consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions. Period. Impartiality is our guiding principle,” Dorsey told the panel.

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearings, Trump, without offering evidence, accused social media companies of interfering in the congressional elections, telling the Daily Caller conservative website that social media firms are “super liberal.”

Trump was quoted as saying in the interview on Tuesday that “I think they already have” interfered.

Democratic committee members accused Republicans of calling the hearing for political reasons. Republicans control both the House and Senate and the elections will decide whether they keep their majorities.

“Over the past weeks, President Trump and many Republicans have peddled conspiracy theories about Twitter and other social media platforms to whip up their base and fundraise,” said Representative Frank Pallone, the committee’s top Democrat.

The hearing was interrupted by a protester who shouted that Twitter’s Dorsey was lying, accusing him of banning conservatives and saying the platform was going to help Democrats “steal” the November elections.

Police officers removed her from the room as Republican Representative Billy Long used the droning cadence of his former career as an auctioneer to drown her out.

At a separate Senate hearing earlier on Wednesday, Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg faced threats of legislative action from skeptical lawmakers over what many members of Congress see as a failure to block fake accounts and other foreign efforts to influence US politics.

Senator Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Democratic vice chairman, said the companies have not done enough to slow the spread of disinformation, and said Congress
might need to act.

Senators said legislation addressing the use of social media for political disinformation could resemble a bill passed earlier this year - and signed into law by Trump - that made it easier for state prosecutors and sex-trafficking victims to sue social media companies, advertisers and others who failed to keep exploitative material off their sites.

Many senators expressed anger at Google for declining the committee’s request to send a top executive to testify and was represented in the hearing room by an empty chair.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the company might have skipped the hearing because it was “arrogant.”

Sandberg and Dorsey both said that they were working hard to prevent a repeat of 2016 when Russia meddled. Moscow denies the allegations.

“We’ve removed hundreds of pages and accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior - meaning they misled others about who they were and what they were doing,” Sandberg told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “When bad actors try to use our site, we will block them.”

Facebook, Twitter and other technology firms have been on the defensive for many months over political influence activity on their sites and concerns over user privacy.

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