On September 5, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to address Twitter’s content moderation. While some of the hearing focused on other issues, such as harassment on the platform, the better part of it was devoted to the baseless and debunked claims of bias against conservatives.
Compared to the Senate intelligence committee hearing earlier in the day with Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about foreign actors using tech platforms for information warfare operations, the House committee hearing did little to inform Americans of the ways Twitter is building a healthier public space.
Here are some of the worst moments from the hearing.
When Rep. Joe Barton refused to accept Dorsey’s explanation that Twitter algorithms don’t consider account ideology
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) asked Dorsey about certain congressional members’ names not showing up as auto-suggestions in the search bar, a bug that Twitter has claimed to have fixed. Dorsey noted it impacted more than 600,000 accounts, and Barton suggested more Republicans were targeted than Democrats. When Dorsey said the platform’s algorithms do not take “any affiliation, philosophy, or viewpoint” into account, Barton said, “That’s hard to stomach. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there wasn’t a general agreement that your company has discriminated against conservatives, most of whom happen to be Republican.”
When Rep. Steve Scalise cited a widely criticized article as evidence of conservatives being “shadow banned”
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) directly cited a widely criticized July Vice article that had claimed Twitter had “shadow banned” prominent Republicans in search results, a piece that other Republicans (such as Barton) also alluded to in the hearing. Many in the tech world criticized the Vice article at the time for being “based on a misunderstanding of the concept of shadow banning,” and Vice later reported that the issue -- a bug rather than a “shadow ban” -- was fixed. Dorsey also noted in his opening statement that Twitter in its own study found “no statistically significant difference between the number of times a Tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Tweet by a Republican.”
Nonetheless, Scalise, the House majority whip, used the Vice report to claim only Republicans had been targeted, saying it was “a concern that a lot of us have if there is a real bias in the algorithm as it was developed” and suggesting Twitter employees purposely targeted conservatives when creating the platform’s algorithms.
When Rep. Billy Long shared Twitter’s “daily highlights” emails of recommended content to suggest bias
Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) cited “daily highlights” emails Twitter sends its users containing current noteworthy tweets to suggest Twitter was biased against conservatives. He then named some of the accounts whose tweets were recommended to him -- the majority of them were media figures covering politics -- and complained that almost all of the recommended tweets came from “Trump-bashing” people and urged Dorsey to “take that into consideration.”
When Rep. Markwayne Mullin invoked a bad faith campaign targeting The New York Times’ Sarah Jeong to suggest a double standard
After pressing Dorsey on his personal political affiliation, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) criticized Twitter for briefly suspending Candace Owens, the communications director of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA and who has ties to the far-right, for mocking tweets from Sarah Jeong, a tech journalist whom The New York Times had just hired as an editorial board member. After her hiring was announced, far-right trolls targeted Jeong for her old sarcastic tweets (tactics similar to those used during the far-right misogynistic online movement known as Gamergate). Mullin then read some of Jeong’s tweets aloud to suggest a double standard because Twitter had not suspended her.
When Rep. Jeff Duncan complained a dummy Twitter account that his staffer created was being recommended to follow left-wing political figures and not celebrities or athletes
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), suggesting anti-conservative Twitter bias, said that his “20-something female staffer” had created a dummy Twitter account and only entered her email and Washington, D.C., phone number. Duncan claimed that the accounts Twitter suggested following were only “left-wing political types.” He then said no celebrities or athletes were recommended to her, saying she “didn’t even get Taylor Swift, Chris Pratt, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kim Kardashian.” Dorsey explained that given the Washington, D.C., area code she had provided as information, Twitter likely recommended to her the most followed and engaged with accounts in the capital area, to which Duncan responded by complaining that D.C. athletes were not listed in the recommendations either.
Alex Jones and Richard Spencer were not brought up at all
It has been clear in recent weeks that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was getting special treatment from Twitter. Somehow, just days after The Wall Street Journal reported that Dorsey had personally intervened to keep the accounts of Jones and “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer on the platform, neither figure was brought up during the entire hearing.