Debate sets stage for anti-conservative bias charges against Facebook and Twitter over Hunter Biden article

Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY
·5 min read

When President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden take the debate stage Thursday night, Facebook and Twitter may be the ones in the hot seat over charges of anti-conservative bias.

“I am not just running against Biden, I am running against the Corrupt Media, the Big Tech Giants, and the Washington Swamp,” Trump tweeted late Wednesday.

Trump and other top Republican officials have for years alleged that Facebook, Google and Twitter target the political speech of right-leaning users to limit their online reach.

Tech companies deny any partisanship, saying their policies strike a balance between users' rights to freely express themselves and keeping hate, abuse and misinformation off their platforms, though they concede they've made missteps in moderating content.

There is no clear evidence to support claims of systemic censorship or suppression, but controversy over social media's handling of a disputed New York Post article have again thrust GOP grievances into the national spotlight.

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Tensions came to a head last week when the New York Post published an article alleging ties between Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings with Ukraine. The article cited unverified emails that were reportedly discovered by Trump’s allies. USA TODAY has not been able to confirm the authenticity of the emails.

With the presidential election just weeks away, social media companies are on high alert for misinformation that could sway voters or tip the election in one candidate’s favor. National intelligence officials warned Americans on Wednesday that Iran and Russia are attempting to spread misinformation ahead of the election.

Facebook said it limited the spread of the New York Post article while waiting for it to be fact-checked. Twitter blocked users from tweeting out the link to the article and from sending it in private messages. Dorsey later said Twitter was wrong to block the article.

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Trump has promised to try to knock Biden off his stride, including with questions about the business dealings of his son Hunter, during the 90-minute debate which is likely to draw an audience of more than 70 million viewers.

Outrage from Republicans led to a Senate Judiciary Committee vote Thursday to compel Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify about allegations of anti-conservative bias.

All 12 Republican senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to authorize the subpoenas for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dorsey. The 10 Democrats on the panel boycotted Thursday's meeting over its consideration of Judge Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, which the panel approved. The committee has not scheduled a hearing date yet.

Social media platform news
Social media platform news

Another congressional hearing scheduled for next week promises to raise tensions between Republicans and Silicon Valley to new heights.

Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai are scheduled to testify Wednesday at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet companies from liability for much of the content their users post on their platforms, and grants companies legal immunity for good faith efforts to remove content.

“(Biden) and his family are crooked, and they got caught. And now they are being protected by Big Tech,” Trump tweeted last week. “We must immediately strip them of their Section 230 protection."

At issue is the opaque process with which Silicon Valley tech giants make decisions on what's allowed and not allowed on their platforms.

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Section 230 has critics on both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans generally agree that social media platforms should be held more accountable for how they police content, and the parties have introduced a number of bills, none of which has gained traction on Capitol Hill.

Democrats including presidential nominee Joe Biden have urged Congress to revise Section 230 to make tech companies more accountable for hate speech and extremism, election interference, misinformation and disinformation.

President Donald Trump and his surrogates have been the loudest critics of Section 230. Trump has repeatedly called on Congress to repeal it. The Justice Department has asked Congress to adopt a new law that would hold Facebook, Google and Twitter legally accountable for how they moderate content.

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Trump’s attacks on Section 230 have intensified in the final weeks of his re-election campaign as social media companies label or remove posts they deem false or misleading or that could cause harm or incite violence.

The Senate Commerce Committee posted a video on social media promoting next week’s hearing that lists examples of alleged censorship.

Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told Fox News he's outraged by Twitter’s handling of the New York Post article but will also demand that Dorsey explain "example after example after example of anti-conservative, anti-Republican bias.”

"These are among the most powerful people in the country," he said. "Under the current law, they get a free pass" to censor anything "they find objectionable," Wicker said.

"In my view we should not leave it up to big tech what is objectionable and what isn't."

Contributing: Nicholas Wu and Susan Page

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Facebook and Twitter may face anti-GOP bias charges during debate