WASHINGTON – Does a hyper-progressive, Silicon Valley cartel of social-media dominance threaten the very framework of free speech in America?
That will be the focus of a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday when Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., takes testimony from representatives of Facebook, You Tube and Twitter – all accused by conservatives, Christians and independent media of employing ideological bias through algorithms and human intervention to suppress free speech, along with Internet search giant Google. In the past, all four companies declined invitations to testify on these issues before the committee.
Those scheduled to testify at 10 a.m. in the live-streamed hearing will include Facebook’s Monika Bickert, head of global policy management, Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy and government relations, and Nick Pickles, Twitter senior strategist.
Goodlatte made it clear in an April hearing on the subject, featuring members of Congress and conservative online commentators known as “Diamond and Silk,” that these companies are deliberating suppressing political speech in ways that create a chilling effect on an open-and-free society and America’s constitutional commitment to free expression. “Diamond and Silk” are two entertaining sisters, Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who gained public attention gained for their enthusiastic and spirited support of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, and maintain an active following for their videos on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. They insist Facebook deliberately limited their audience reach.
But the issue is much bigger than “Diamond and Silk.”
With the advent of the internet, there emerged a new “independent media” that prospered because a handful of companies offered a different view of the news than did the established entities that operated newspapers, television networks and radio stations. Following the pioneering lead of the Matt Drudge’s DrudgeReport.com, they took advantage of the lower barrier to entry online by establishing news-gathering organizations focused exclusively on digital distribution.
“Today, most of those publishers recognize they face an existential threat because of the power and control exercised by what I call the Silicon Valley Cartel,” said Joseph Farah, the founder of the first of those independent media companies, WorldNetDaily or WND.com. “Our revenues are under attack by the cartel. Our traffic is under attack by the cartel. We are all being strangled by Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon. They set the ground rules now. We are all in their crosshairs, targeted for extinction. Unless there is major pushback against this cartel from the only entity powerful enough to hold them accountable – government – all we have built over the last 20 years will implode. Once that happens, this cartel will effectively decide what is acceptable for the American people to see, hear and read. The American political culture will be as closed as the political culture of the University of Calfornia at Berkeley – which shares those values.”
Farah calls it “nothing short of the beginning of the end of free speech, the free press and freedom of religion in America unless these companies are restrained and reined in or broken up. That’s the choice we face.”
He points to the fact that Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Amazon all share what he calls “an astonishing common denominator.” That is that all five of these companies have chosen to work with the “extremist” Southern Poverty Law Center to help them set content guidelines in one form or another.
“This is a group that admits it is out to destroy conservatives and others who disagree with them,” he says. “And it has been given immense power, influence and credibility by the internet cartel. When Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook seeks to offer a fair and honest debate, someone should ask him the question: ‘Why do you work with the SPLC, which smears anyone and everyone with whom it disagrees – even to the point of inspiring an act of political terrorism against the headquarters of the Family Research Council a few years ago?’ This is a group that labeled Dr. Ben Carson an ‘extremist.’ It’s a group that calls the president of the United States a “racist, a fascist and worse. This is the group called upon to offer guidance on content standards by every component of the cartel.”
Farah is hardly the only one making this case.
“This could end up being the free speech issue of our time,” said Breitbart.com Editor in Chief Alex Marlow, whose news organization has published articles exposing alleged political bias and censorship by search giant Google and its video-sharing website YouTube. “The Silicon Valley elites are saying, ‘We don’t care what you want to see – we know what you should see,” Marlow told the New York Times. “We know better.”
And here’s what Fox News star Tucker Carlson said on his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” back in January, who warned the issue is bigger and scarier than just content control.
“It might be difficult to get your head around what is happening in this country,” Carlson said. “So much has changed. But here’s the bottom line – the federal government is no longer the main threat to your privacy and to your freedoms. You’ve grown up thinking that; it’s no longer true. Big corporations are the main threat to your freedom and your privacy.”
Carlson argued the government “doesn’t own your private emails: Google does. Federal employees can’t be fired for their political views. Private sector employees are all the time. The federal government can’t end your ability to publicly communicate your ideas. Twitter and Facebook can do that and they do that all the time. The Orwellian future is increasingly the Orwellian present, and tech barons are becoming our new commissars. Liberals who once admirably stood up for free expression and opposition to concentrations of corporate power have been thoroughly co-opted. They’re getting rich from it.”
In the April hearing, Goodlatte said “while these companies may have legal, economic, and ideological reasons to manage their content like a traditional media outlet, we must nevertheless weigh as a nation whether the standards they apply endanger our free and open society and its culture of freedom of expression.”
But the question of whether these companies are traditional media outlets is also likely to come up, since they walk a fine line between public utilities, with certain public responsibilities as well as benefits, and content publishers which are clearly protected by the First Amendment.
It is this balance that represents one of the central questions that Congress will need to deal with as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and even Amazon continue their domination of the marketplace, reaching near monopoly status. Facebook is used by 60 percent of U.S. adults, most of whom say they get most of their news filtered through the social media giant. Three-quarters of U.S. adults use YouTube. Twitter commands 40 percent of the market share among U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 24.
“The advent of social media has made it possible for people to connect across continents, explore vast amounts of information, and share meaningful dialogue with friends and strangers,” Goodlatte said. “However, this same technology can be used to suppress a particular viewpoint and manipulate public opinion. I am pleased that the leading social-media companies have agreed to send content management experts to answer questions on their content moderation practices and how they can be better stewards of free speech in the United States and abroad.”
Republicans on the committee repeatedly charged Google, Facebook and the others with systematically censoring and blocking contest created and posted by conservatives – and also limiting that content’s potential audience reach.
But Democrats, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the ranking member from New York, called the notion a “hoax.”
“The notion that social media companies are filtering out conservative voices is a hoax, a tired narrative of imagined victimhood,” said Nadler. he added that “conservative commentary, including conspiracy theories of a conservative bent, regularly rank among the most far-reaching posts on Facebook and elsewhere.”
Goodlatte promises Tuesday’s hearing will also examine the role of competition law into the equation, suggesting at least some members of Congress see the near-monopoly status of some of these companies as a possible target of anti-trust actions by Washington. By some accounts, Google and Facebook together effectively control about 75 percent of online advertising marketplace, which is, overall, larger than the advertising marketplace for the entirety of television broadcasting.