Justice Department probes whether social media is
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[September 06, 2018]
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department
of Justice and state attorneys general will meet this month to discuss
concerns that social media platforms are "intentionally stifling the
free exchange of ideas," the department said on Wednesday.
Its statement did not name Facebook Inc <FB.O> and Twitter Inc <TWTR.N>,
whose executives testified in Congress on Wednesday, but the firms have
been harshly criticized by President Donald Trump and some of his fellow
Republicans for what they see as an effort to repress conservative
The companies deny any such bias.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened the meeting, set for Sept.
25, "to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting
competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on
their platforms," Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said.
It was not known which state attorneys general would attend.
Representatives for the attorneys general in New York, Connecticut and
Iowa said that they had not been contacted.
Shares of social media companies slipped on Wednesday as the executives
met skeptical lawmakers, with Twitter off 6.1 percent and Facebook
around 2.3 percent lower in late afternoon trading. Shares of Google
parent Alphabet Inc.<GOOGL.O> sank about 1 percent.
In the morning, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and
Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey testified at a Senate Intelligence
Committee hearing on efforts to counteract foreign efforts to influence
U.S. elections and political discourse.
The Senate panel has been examining reported Russian efforts to
influence U.S. public opinion throughout Trump's presidency, after U.S.
intelligence agencies concluded that entities backed by the Kremlin had
sought to boost his chances of winning the White House in 2016.
Sandberg and Dorsey said the companies had stepped up efforts to fight
such influence operations, but lawmakers said there was far more to be
done and suggested Congress might have to take legislative action.
"Clearly, this problem is not going away. I'm not even sure it's
trending in the right direction," said Senator Richard Burr, the
committee's Republican chairman.
Senator Mark Warner, the committee's top Democrat said, "I'm skeptical
that, ultimately, you'll be able to truly address this challenge on your
own. Congress is going to have to take action here."
Legislation addressing the use of social media for political
disinformation could resemble a bill passed earlier this year – and
signed into law by Trump - that made it easier for state prosecutors and
sex-trafficking victims to sue social media companies, advertisers and
others who failed to keep exploitative material off their sites.
Committee members also criticized Google for refusing to send top
executives to testify at the Senate hearing, with just weeks before the
Nov. 6 congressional elections.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the company might have skipped the
hearing because it was "arrogant."
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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is seated prior to testifying before a
Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on foreign influence
operations on social media platforms on Capitol Hill in Washington,
U.S., September 5, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Dorsey then testified at a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce
Committee hearing focused on the bias issue.
Representative Greg Walden, the committee's Republican chairman, said Twitter
had made "mistakes" that, he said, minimized Republicans’ presence on the social
media site, a practice conservatives have labeled "shadow banning."
"Multiple members of Congress and the chairwoman of the Republican Party have
seen their Twitter presences temporarily minimized in recent months, due to what
you have claimed was a mistake in the algorithm," he said.
Dorsey denied any deliberate attempt to target conservatives, or promote
liberals, during more than four hours of questioning.
"Recently we failed our intended impartiality. Our algorithms were unfairly
filtering 600,000 accounts, including some members of Congress, from our search
auto-complete and latest results. We fixed it," he said.
Ahead of Wednesday's hearings, Trump, without offering evidence, accused social
media companies of interfering in the November elections, telling the Daily
Caller conservative website that social media firms are "super liberal."
Trump was quoted as saying in the interview on Tuesday that "I think they
already have" interfered.
Democratic House committee members accused Republicans of calling the hearing
for political reasons, noting that Trump had featured accusations of bias in
fundraising letters. The mid-terms will decide whether Republicans will keep
their majorities in the House and Senate.
"Over the past weeks, President Trump and many Republicans have peddled
conspiracy theories about Twitter and other social media platforms to whip up
their base and fundraise," said Representative Frank Pallone, the committee's
Wednesday's hearings were attended by conspiracy theorists known as Trump
supporters, who have dealt with bans on social media.
The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who was temporarily suspended from Twitter,
sat in the front row of the Senate hearing, and interrupted Rubio.
The House hearing was interrupted by Laura Loomer, a conspiracy theorist who has
been banned from major social media sites. She shouted that Dorsey was lying,
accusing him of banning conservatives and saying Twitter was going to help
Democrats "steal" the November elections.
Loomer was removed from the room as Republican Representative Billy Long used
the droning cadence of his former career as an auctioneer to drown her out.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in
Washington and Shreyashi Sanyal in Bangalore; Editing by Susan Thomas and Grant
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