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Congress Pressed Tech CEOs About The Falsehoods Spread On Their Platforms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hoaxes and violent messages online can lead to real-world harm, like the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was largely planned and documented on platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. So should social media companies be responsible for that? That's essentially what Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle, a Democrat, asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a hearing today.

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MIKE DOYLE: Yes or no. Do you bear some responsibility for what happened?

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Congressman, our responsibility is to make sure that we build effective systems to help...

DOYLE: OK, the gentleman chooses not to answer the question.

SHAPIRO: The heads of Google and Twitter also testified at that hearing. These companies are among NPR's financial supporters. And NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here to fill us in on the hearing. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Many members of the committee were there when this pro-Trump mob breached the Capitol back in January. At today's hearing, how much did they blame the tech companies for that?

BOND: Well, like we heard from Mike Doyle, they were certainly asking them to answer for their role. But what we heard from the companies, you know, is what Zuckerberg told Doyle. It was not Facebook that attacked the Capitol, he said. It was the rioters spurred on by former President Trump.

And, Ari, that distinction between what is shared online and then what people do in real life, that's this core tension between these powerful companies' point of view and their critics, including in government. So today we heard the CEOs - Zuckerberg, as well as Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sundar Pichai of Google. They really focused on talking up their policies, talking about how much they've cracked down on misinformation, especially during the pandemic and around the election.

SHAPIRO: Did they acknowledge any room for improvement, or was it just pure kind of, like, defensiveness and happy talk from the tech companies?

BOND: They didn't give a lot of ground. I mean, the one who came closest to acknowledging some kind of responsibility was Jack Dorsey of Twitter. He said, yes, social media did play a role in January 6. But he also said that can't be pinned solely on tech companies. And throughout the day, lawmakers were very frustrated with the answers they were getting. You could hear that frustration here from Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey.

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FRANK PALLONE: You're not bystanders. You're encouraging this stuff.

SHAPIRO: So what are lawmakers proposing, Shannon?

BOND: Well, there is a bunch of bills that are being introduced. Many are focused on holding the companies more responsible for exactly these - this kind of harm. Today, you know, there were questions. They pushed the CEOs a lot on how their platforms work, about how their business models - you know, these business models of getting people to spend a lot of time online so that these companies can sell ads - how that might actually be rewarding the most inflammatory content because we know that often gets the most engagement, and then how that's contributed to the spread of lies about election fraud, doubt about vaccines.

You know, and on the Republican side, interestingly, you know, at other recent hearings with these tech CEOs, we've heard a lot of complaints about anti-conservative bias. They say people like former President Trump have been unfairly muzzled. We heard less of that today. Many Republicans zeroed in on the effects of social media on kids, on their mental health and wellbeing. Here's Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.

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CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS: Your platforms are my biggest fear as a parent.

BOND: And so some Democrats also mentioned these fears, and I think that might be a sign you will see more bipartisan efforts to take on these companies through new laws.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. What are the companies saying specifically about the proposed regulations that lawmakers are talking about?

BOND: Well, look, Ari; they know change is coming, and now you're starting to see these companies really trying to get ahead of those changes, shape those changes, especially Facebook. It's been running a lot of ads recently calling for updated rules for the Internet, saying, you know, it's time.

Zuckerberg today laid out more of a vision for those new rules. You know, he talked about requiring big platforms to be more transparent, to have systems in place to deal with content that breaks the law. You know, a lot of these things are things Facebook itself is already doing, so that could potentially benefit them.

And, you know, Google and Twitter, on the other hand, they've been warning a bit about if these changes are done the wrong way, that could actually backfire. Ultimately, you know, these big companies, like Facebook and Google, they have a lot of money. They have the legal power to comply with regulation, especially if they can shape it. So the question, Ari, is, how might these rules we see getting changed affect everybody else in the tech world, not just the big guys?

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Thanks, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.