Thu. May 23rd, 2024

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Republicans say Meta and other social-media companies are censoring conservative views, sometimes under pressure from the government. Democrats say the government must work with the companies to respond to election manipulation and other threats. The tensions have already led to a court fight that threatens to upend how the government and social-media companies deal with perceived online threats. Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, now finds itself front and center of that debate.

On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) said in a tweet that the vote had been canceled because Meta had begun producing documents. “To be clear, contempt is still on the table and WILL be used if Facebook fails to cooperate in FULL,” he said.

Here is what to know:

How did we get here?

Jordan, chair of the Judiciary Committee, late last year asked Metato turn over internal documents about its content-moderation decisions—oftencontroversial calls about whether to ban accounts or suppress posts. The panel issued a subpoena for the documents in February.

Meta said Wednesday it has “delivered over 53,000 pages of documents—both internal and external—and have made nearly a dozen current and former employees available to discuss external and internal matters, including some scheduled this very week.”

It added in a statement: “For many months, Meta has operated in good faith with this committee’s sweeping requests for information…Meta will continue to comply, as we have thus far, with good faith requests from the committee.”

But Republicans say that the company has been withholding internal communications between Meta employees about how to respond when the government asked it to take down or suppress certain content. The company started turning over some of those documents Thursday, Jordan said.

What is the broader context?

Several government agencies have in recent years opened formal channels of communications with Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms. Federal officials can flag perceived threats, such as a post containing false information about elections or vaccines. Platforms, for their part, sometimes ask government officials for guidance about how to judge whether content is false or dangerous.

Republicans see these interactions as ripe for abuse. They contend that government officials have leaned on the companies to censor debate, violating Americans’ freedom of speech and conservatives in particular.

Democrats see social-media companies as far too lax in fighting hate speech and what they view as harmful content. Democrats also tend to be more supportive of the government coordinating with social-media companies to respond to digital threats, such as an American adversary using social media to foment discord or smear a candidate.

Why are Republicans targeting Zuckerberg now?

Republicans say they have evidence that Facebook and the Biden administration worked together to censor Americans’ speech, particularly when it came to discussions about Covid-19.

Early on in the Biden administration, White House officials aggressively pressured Facebook to be more proactive in taking down content about Covid-19, according to emails released as part of a lawsuit by the Republican attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri. The White House has said it was trying to prevent the spread of false information during a public health emergency.

In February 2022, Facebook sent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a list of more than 20 claims about vaccines for young children. Some claims were outlandish, such as the vaccines containing microchips. Others dealt with more complex questions, such as “claims that building immunity by getting Covid-19 is safer than getting the vaccine.”

“We are hoping CDC could confirm whether these claims are also false and harmful,” a Facebook employee wrote in one email. Weeks later the CDC gave a brief response declaring all the claims false, with one exception. “Wow, this is amazing,” a Facebook employee responded. “We’ll get moving now to be able to remove all but that one claim.”

Republicans argue that those kinds of interactions ended up censoring legitimate debate about Covid policies—and they want to know more about how Meta responded.

What is the Democrats’ response?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said in a statement that Jordan’s investigation itself was aimed at bullying social-media companies into changing content-moderation policies.

“This is a stunt meant to intimidate the companies, universities and government institutions that are engaging in sensible content moderation and raising awareness about online disinformation ahead of the 2024 elections,” he said. Nadler was referringto the Meta probe as well as Republicans’ investigation of some academic researchers who have documented the spread of what they considered potentially harmful information.

More broadly, Democrats reject the idea that social-media companies target conservatives, noting that many on the right have massive online followings. If anything, Democrats say, the companies have been too lax in removing harmful content, such as calls to riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Democrats also note that Republican administrations aren’t immune to leaning on tech companies. In a House Oversight Committee hearing this past February, a former Twitter employee testified that the Trump White House had repeatedly asked the company to take down content related to the former president.

Meta, for its part, says its content-moderation decisions are independent, and not made with regard to politics.

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