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U.S. Senators grill Facebook, Google, and Twitter on extremist content

Google, Facebook, and Twitter were all once again on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, this time for a hearing on violent online extremism.

The hearing, titled Mass Violence, Extremism, and Digital Responsibility, was held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Senators questioned representatives from the three major tech companies to find out what they’re doing to combat and remove violent extremist content from their platforms. 

On the same day as the Senate hearing, the obtained a copy of a draft bill in the House that would create a “national commission” to oversee harmful internet content. The bill, if passed, would create a commission to study “the ways social media could be weaponized.” The commission, which would be part of the Department of Homeland Security, would also have the ability to hold hearings and subpoena tech companies.

At the hearing, Facebook Head of Global Policy Management Monika Bickert, Twitter Public Policy Director Nick Pickles, and Google Global Director of Information Policy Derek Slater each represented their respective companies. The Anti-Defamation League’s George Selim was also on the panel to provide expertise.

The tech giants mainly focused on policies regarding how each moderates content and works alongside law enforcement to combat violence and extremism. Bickert, in particular, centered on how Facebook has been able to be proactive when it comes to removing content thanks to its AI. In fact, much of the information provided by the social media giant was explored on these very issues which it, proactively, published the day before the hearing.

With much of the hearing focused on the actions being taken against violent extremist content, some important topics were absent from the conversation. For example, while there was a short portion of the hearing that discussed the mental health aspects surrounding time spent on the internet, the ways tech companies deal (or sometimes even promote) content that radicalizes users weren’t really discussed.

This particular hearing was shorter and certainly more tame when compared to those held prior. However, it still had its noteworthy moments.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth points out how much time the average internet user in the U.S. spends on social media.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth points out how much time the average internet user in the U.S. spends on social media.

Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth provided visuals to make a point. Senator Duckworth presented a chart to the panel and her colleagues showing the average number of hours spent each day on social media by its users based by country. Users based in nearly two dozen countries had spent more time on social media each day than users in the U.S. 

Senator Duckworth argued that the growing threats of extremist violence in the U.S. aren’t a tech problem, but a result of inaction when it comes to guns in the country.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican Senator Rick Scott, who was Governor of Florida during the Parkland shooting, pressed Google’s Derek Slater on a YouTube comment left by the shooter prior carrying out the act. The FBI wasn’t able to identify who left the comment with the information provided by Google. 

Slater explained that the company has been working closer with law enforcement in these instances and cited a of a Florida man who was arrested after making violent threats on a PBS Newshour YouTube livestream. 

Before pivoting to a question directed at Twitter as to why it allows Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on its platform, Senator Scott followed up on seeking assurance that future online threats wouldn’t be missed by Google. Slater offered up that the work being done is an “evolving process.”

Senator Ted Cruz used his time to pivot to tech bias.

“Many Americans including myself have a longstanding concern that when big tech says its combating extremism, that is often a shield for advancing political censorship,” said Cruz. He referenced how Twitter Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “Team Mitch” account for posting a video that it says broke its policies on harassment and extremism. It later unlocked the account and allowed the video to be posted.

Over the past few years, tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have increasingly found themselves sitting on the hot seat at Congressional hearings. Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself was at a hearing on the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Google CEO Sundar Pichai also provided at a hearing in December regarding a range of issues at Google, such as its censorship-friendly search engine in China. Perceived on social media has been another hot topic at Congressional hearings.

Future hearings would benefit by including emerging platforms that have often been ignored by Congress, such as and even .

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