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Congress beats up Facebook over Infowars

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Yesterday I told you today's tech hearing promised to be another high-profile waste of time. Reader:
 
July 17 · Issue #166 · View online
The Interface
Yesterday I told you today’s tech hearing promised to be another high-profile waste of time. Reader: it was. Three precious hours of time that, not for nothing, started at 7AM PT. 
Organized to address fantastical Republican concerns over censorship, the hearing touched on everything from whether Google blocks mentions of Jesus to President Donald Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin. In the end lawmakers landed on an unlikely and somewhat bipartisan conclusion: it’s time to ban more Facebook accounts.
Pointing to posts from hyperpartisan Facebook pages including Infowars and Milkshakes Against the Republic Party that appeared to incite violence, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee asked tech executives to make it clearer when they would ban accounts of repeat offenders. It marked a rare point of agreement during a hearing that Democrats repeatedly (and accurately) called a waste of time.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) noted that conspiracy site Infowars had repeatedly denied the reality of mass shootings, warning followers that they were performed by “crisis actors” as a pretext for taking away people’s guns. Shooting survivors subsequently faced harassment and death threats from Infowars’ fans. “What’s happened with Infowars? They’ve made a cottage industry out of this. Why are they still on Facebook?”
Facebook’s global head of policy management, Monika Bickert, said that while Facebook had removed some of Infowars’ posts, Infowars itself did not deserve to be banned. “If they posted sufficient content that it violated our threshold, the page would come down,” she told Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who asked a similar question. “That threshold varies depending on the severity of different types of violations.”
But when it came to Infowars, she told Raskin, “they have not reached the threshold.” (Notably, later in the day we learned that Facebook moderators are sometimes trained to ignore the mysterious moving threshold, particularly when it applies to policing the behavior of far-right pages.)
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) asked Bickert why Facebook had not banned a page named Milkshakes Against the Republican Party, which had posted content that appeared to call for shootings against Republican lawmakers. Bickert said she would investigate the page and get back to him.
Today’s discussion was of course meant as a follow up to a disastrous April hearing about “social media censorship” in the case of two vloggers who post under the names Diamond and Silk.
Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter declined Congress’ invitation to appear at that hearing, which devolved into a circus. But they showed up for this one, and were subjected to more questions about alleged censorship by the platforms, pointing to a handful of instances in which conservative-leaning sites had a post removed, or saw their reach decline over time.
One lawmaker inquired why the right-wing site Gateway Pundit had seen decreased Facebook traffic; Bickert said she could not speak to an individual site’s performance. Many publishers of all political bents have seen steep declines in traffic from Facebook since the company changed its algorithm earlier this year.
Representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter all said that their policies take neutral stances politically, and said it is in their best interest to host voices from across the ideological spectrum.
Lawmakers also raised the possibility that they would revisit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which offers platforms like Facebook limited immunity for being sued over what their users post. The tool is widely seen as protecting free expression on the internet. But some lawmakers want platforms to be held accountable for user posts, at least in some instances.
“I’m all for freedom of speech, and free enterprise, and for competition and finding a way that competition itself does its own regulation so government doesn’t have to,” said Rep. Steve King (R-IA). “But if this gets further out of hand, it appears to me that Section 230 needs to be reviewed.”
Democrats on the committee repeatedly questioned the point of the hearing, urging their Republican counterparts to turn their attention to more pressing issues. “What a dumb hearing this entire hearing is,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA).
I did not disagree.

Democracy
Cambridge Analytica's Facebook data was accessed from Russia, MP says
Twitter says it doesn’t “have the bandwidth” to fix verification
Twitter suspended 58 million accounts in 4Q
Publishing Executives Argue Facebook Is Overly Deferential to Conservatives
Facebook protects far-right activists even after rule breaches
Working to Keep Facebook Safe
Help Us Track Targeted Political Advertising On Facebook
Why startups aren't pushing the feds to break up Big Tech
Elsewhere
Facebook, boosting artificial-intelligence research, says it’s ‘not going fast enough’
With new hires, Facebook insists that it’s not stealing too much talent
The Washington Post is starting a channel on Amazon-owned Twitch
The SIM Hijackers
Instagram is building non-SMS 2-factor auth to thwart SIM hackers
Health Insurers Are Vacuuming Up Details About You — And It Could Raise Your Rates
In Reversal, Facebook Mulls Switch to Google Apps
Launches
Tinder tests letting users send Bitmoji because you can’t send real photos
Snapchat is launching a news partnerships initiative
Takes
What if people were paid for their data? - Data workers of the world, unite
How to Use Instagram Questions
“Fake Followers” are “Social Spam”
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And finally ...
Read the Transcript of Obama’s Speech Defending Democracy
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Congressional testimony? casey@theverge.com
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