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Former Washington Journalist
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Under fire in some quarters for their role in disseminating information — and disinformation — to the American people ahead of last year’s presidential election, two top tech leaders defended their companies’ roles and at least one sought some sort of oversight for the future.
The CEOs of Facebook and Twitter appeared this week before a congressional hearing on the subject of disinformation.
“We directed 140 million people to our official voting information center, and we helped 4.5 million people register to vote. We did our part to secure the integrity of the election. And then, on January 6, President Trump gave a speech rejecting the results and calling on people to fight,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “The attack on the Capitol was an outrage. And I want to express my sympathy to all of the members, staff and Capitol workers who had to live through this disgraceful moment in our history. And I want to express my gratitude to the Capitol Police who were on the front lines in defense of our democracy.
“I believe that the former president should be responsible for his words, and that the people who broke the law should be responsible for their actions,” Zuckerberg added, referring to the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol in which Trump supporters overran the Capitol with the intention of overturning Joe Biden’s lawful certification as the nation’s 46th president in a bid to keep Trump in the White House.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also defended the social media provider he operates as being on the side of free expression. Both Facebook and Twitter would ultimately permanently suspend Trump from their services for inciting violence.
“I would rather us focus on principles and approaches to address these problems. I’ll start with ours. We believe in free expression. We believe in free debate and conversation to find the truth. At the same time, we must balance that with our desire for our service not to be used to sow confusion, division or destruction. This makes the freedom to moderate content critical to us. Our process to moderate content is designed to constantly evolve,” Dorsey said. “We observe what’s happening on our service. We work to understand the ramifications and we use that understanding to strengthen our operations. We push ourselves to improve based on the best information we have.
“Much of what we are likely to discuss today are entirely new situations the world has never experienced before, and in some unique cases involve elected officials,” he added. “We believe the best way to face a big new challenge is through narrowing the problem to have the greatest impact. Disinformation is a broad concept and we needed to focus our approach on where we saw the greatest risks if we hope to have any impact at all.”
Zuckerberg, in particular, called for agreed-upon rules and a dialing-down, generally, of the intense partisanship gripping the nation.
“We need an accountable process, which is why we created an independent oversight board that can overrule our decisions, and we need democratically agreed rules for the Internet. The reality is our country is deeply divided right now, and that isn’t something that tech companies alone can fix,” he said. “We all have a part to play in helping to turn things around and I think that starts with taking a hard look at how we got here. Some people say that the problem is that social networks are polarizing us, but that’s not at all clear from the evidence or research.
“Polarization was rising in America long before social networks were even invented. And it’s falling or stable in many other countries where social networks are popular. Others claim that algorithms feed us content that makes us angry because it’s good for business, but that’s not accurate either,” Zuckerberg added. “I believe that the division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart. And we need to reconnect with that if we are going to make progress.”
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