WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on their platforms’ policies on social media content moderation – focusing on the impact on public discourse on COVID-19, vaccines, climate change, bigotry, and election integrity.
“[W]hether you wished for it or not, the inescapable fact is your algorithms, your policies, and your business decisions shape what billions of people across the world and a working majority of people here in our nation understand to be true. And that's the case for election integrity, for a potential COVID-19 vaccine, for climate change, for hateful and dangerous stereotypes, and many other critical issues,” Senator Coons said to Zuckerberg and Dorsey.
Yesterday, Senator Coons led 14 colleagues on a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling on the company to fully address the problem of anti-Muslim bigotry on its platform, which has enabled offline violence against Muslims in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
Sen. Coons noted his letter to Facebook saying, “We focus particularly on anti-Muslim bias; on an issue that warrants specific attention given the tragic consequences of anti-Muslim hate speech in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, in New Zealand, and right here in the United States, and I appreciate that Facebook has taken actions in response to these issues, but this letter points out why we need better metrics and transparency to actually evaluate your actions. So my colleagues and I urge better enforcement, in particular, of your Call to Arms policy, which could have made a difference in a recent tragedy in Kenosha, Wisconsin.”
In response, Zuckerberg confirmed that Facebook will respond to the letter’s inquiries and added that Facebook will soon detail the prevalence of hate content on its platforms and commit to an independent audit of their reports on content moderation policies.
On Twitter’s lack of a policy on misinformation about climate change, Senator Coons noted,“I cannot think of a greater harm than climate change, which is transforming literally our planet and causing harm to our entire world. I think we’re experiencing significant harm as we speak. I recognize the pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19, manipulated media also cause harm, but I’d urge you to reconsider that because helping to disseminate climate denialism in my view further facilitates and accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world.”
Full audio and video available here. A transcript is provided below.
Sen. Coons: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. In the last four years, we have seen some unprecedented attacks on our democratic institutions, our social norms, of the ways in which we conduct ourselves in this democracy, and many would say on truth itself. And in today's society, you can't talk about truth without also considering the impact of social media and social media platforms. So if I might, Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey, free expression and open debate are of course core values of our society. But whether you wished for it or not, the inescapable fact is your algorithms, your policies, and your business decisions shape what billions of people across the world and a working majority of people here in our nation understand to be true. And that's the case for election integrity, for a potential COVID-19 vaccine, for climate change, for hateful and dangerous stereotypes, and many other critical issues. I also want to recognize that it, in no small part, was the hard work of many led by your ingenuity and resolve that built these impressive American companies and revolutionized the way the world communicates. We need that same resolve to reckon today with what must be done to win our society's battle for truth. Mr. Zuckerberg, as you know, yesterday I sent you, along with 14 of my colleagues – a total of 15 senators – we sent you a letter urging Facebook to do more to address hate speech and calls to violence on the platform. We focus particularly on anti-Muslim bias; on an issue that warrants specific attention given the tragic consequences of anti-Muslim hate speech in Myanmar, in Sri Lanka, in New Zealand, and right here in the United States, and I appreciate that Facebook has taken actions in response to these issues, but this letter points out why we need better metrics and transparency to actually evaluate your actions. So my colleagues and I urge better enforcement, in particular, of your Call to Arms policy, which could have made a difference in a recent tragedy in Kenosha, Wisconsin. You and I spoke last week. I appreciated our conversation. Can I count on you to provide specific and written responses to each of the questions in this letter, and then can we discuss them again?
Mr. Zuckerberg: Senator, yes, I read your letter, and I commit to getting back in detail with our team to address the important topics that you've raised. And one of your questions that I can actually answer right now – I think it was your second question about reporting in our quarterly transparency reports about the prevalence of hate speech that we find on our platforms – we will actually be adding that metric into our transparency reports this Thursday when we announce our latest transparency report.
Sen. Coons: Thank you, Mr. Zuckerberg. Let me just make sure I hear you right about prevalence because that's one of my areas of concern is the absence from the report of the prevalence of hate content. You mean you'll be reporting not just what percentage of hate speech on the platform you're identifying, catching, proactively removing, but the total volume?
Mr. Zuckerberg: Senator, that’s my understanding is the prevalence of that content is a percentage of content on the platform, and over time our goal is going to be to get into more detail which is the subject of some of the questions that you've asked here, as well as we have already committed to an independent audit of the community standards enforcement reports so that way people can have full confidence in all of the numbers that we’re putting out. We’ve been doing these reports for less than a few years now, and we’ll continue to flesh them out and add more detail so that way people can apply the appropriate oversight and scrutiny to the work.
Sen. Coons: Thank you. I want to move on for a moment if I could about your Call to Arms policy. You said earlier today that Facebook made an operational mistake in not taking down an event page that called for people to bring weapons to a public park in Kenosha. As I think we all know, there was a tragic incident of vigilantism in Kenosha where a young man brought his AR-15 from Illinois to Kenosha and ended up with two protesters dead and one injured. You indicated this was because – this operational mistake – was because Facebook had just adopted its militia policy a week earlier, and contractors without specialized training didn't pick up the violation, and I appreciate your frankness as to that in your answers to questions earlier today from Senator Durbin. But your response to Senator Durbin didn't mention that the event page also violated a separate Call to Arms policy in place for over a year that contractors aren't tasked to enforce. So I just have to ask as a follow-up – why didn't you before, and also today, reference the Call to Arms policy when reviewing what went wrong in Kenosha?
Mr. Zuckerberg: Senator, my understanding is that that post did not necessarily violate that Call to Arms policy at the time. The Call to Arms policy does not prohibit anyone from saying, you know, “let's go get our guns and do something.” For example, if people are organizing a hunting trip, that’s obviously not going to be something that should be against the policies. But what we do on some of these policies – which I’m glad to get the opportunity to address this – is some of these are context-specific and just require a higher level of context and expertise in the area to enforce. So we don’t necessarily have all of the 35,000 reviewers assess every single one of these policies. So I can follow up in more detail if you would like on the Call to Arms policy and the nuance there specifically, but that's also a bit on how we operationalize these policies.
Sen. Coons: Thank you for that answer. I do want to follow up because just facially, it seemed to me that this was a violation of your own Call to Arms policy, but I look forward to that conversation. Mr. Dorsey, if I might, at a House Energy Committee hearing – I think it was two years ago – you committed to something that I was just discussing with Mr. Zuckerberg – an independent civil rights audit, but in your case, of Twitter. The audit released by Facebook in July has proven invaluable to bringing sunlight to some key areas in which Facebook does need to improve. Will you follow through on your commitment and commission to this independent audit of Twitter?
Mr. Dorsey: So we work with civil rights groups all over the country and around the world. To get feedback, we’re in constant conversation with them. And we do believe that being more transparent and making our transparency report a lot more robust, which today we still have some gaps, is important for any entity to audit independently of us. We believe that's important because an audit like that could take away from the work that we need to do. We'd rather provide the information in a raw format so that people can do that work.
Sen. Coons: If I heard you right, you aren't going to pursue an independent civil rights audit, but you are going to continue to release data and to consult with civil rights groups. I’d welcome a more thorough answer as to in which way having an independent outside audit would actually harm your transparency efforts.
Mr. Dorsey: I don’t mean it would harm it. I mean that we want to provide enough information so that people can do this work independently of us on their own timelines, and that’s where we need to make our transparency report more robust. And as I said, we have regular conversations with these groups and take feedback regularly.
Sen. Coons: You do, Mr. Dorsey, have policies against deep fakes or manipulated media, against COVID-19 misinformation, against things that violate civic integrity, but you don't have a stand-alone climate change misinformation policy. Why not?
Mr. Dorsey: Well, misleading information , as you are aware, is a large problem. It’s hard to define it completely and cohesively. We wanted to scope our approach to start to focus on the highest severity of harm. We focused on three areas: manipulated media, which you mentioned, civic integrity, around the election specifically, and public health, specifically around COVID. You know, we want to make sure that our resources that we have have the greatest impact on where we believe the greatest severity of harm is going to be. Our policies are living documents. They will evolve. We will add to them, but we thought it important that we focus on our energies and prioritize the work as much as we could.
Sen. Coons: Well, Mr. Dorsey, and I’ll close with this, I cannot think of a greater harm than climate change, which is transforming literally our planet and causing harm to our entire world. I think we’re experiencing significant harm as we speak. I recognize the pandemic and misinformation about COVID-19, manipulated media also cause harm, but I’d urge you to reconsider that because helping to disseminate climate denialism in my view further facilitates and accelerates one of the greatest existential threats to our world. Thank you to both of our witnesses. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.