Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook, could be in for a rough ride on Thursday when he testifies to Congress for the first time about the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC and amid growing questions over his platform’s role in fueling the violence.
The testimony will come after signs that the new administration of Joe Biden is preparing to take a tougher line on the tech industry’s power, especially when it comes to the social media platforms and their role in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Zuckerberg will be joined by Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey, the chief executives of Google and Twitter respectively, at a hearing pointedly entitled “Disinformation nation: social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation” by the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee.
The scrutiny comes after a report found that Facebook allowed groups linked to the QAnon, boogaloo and militia movements to glorify violence during the 2020 election and weeks leading up to the deadly mob violence at the US Capitol.
Avaaz, a non-profit advocacy group, says it identified 267 pages and groups on Facebook that spread “violence-glorifying content” in the heat of the 2020 election to a combined following of 32 million users. More than two-thirds of the groups and pages had names aligned with several domestic extremist movements.
The top 100 most popular false or misleading stories on Facebook related to the elections received an estimated 162m views, the report found. Avaaz called on the White House and Congress to open an investigation into Facebook’s failures and urgently pass legislation to protect American democracy.
Fadi Quran, its campaign director, said: “This report shows that American voters were pummeled with false and misleading information on Facebook every step of the 2020 election cycle. We have over a year’s worth of evidence that the platform helped drive billions of views to pages and content that confused voters, created division and chaos, and, in some instances, incited violence.
“But the most worrying finding in our analysis is that Facebook had the tools and capacity to better protect voters from being targets of this content, but the platform only used them at the very last moment, after significant harm was done.”
Facebook claimed that Avaaz had used flawed methodology. Andy Stone a spokesperson, said: “We’ve done more than any other internet company to combat harmful content, having already banned nearly 900 militarized social movements and removed tens of thousands of QAnon pages, groups and accounts from our apps.”
He acknowledged: “Our enforcement isn’t perfect, which is why we’re always improving it while also working with outside experts to make sure that our policies remain in the right place.”
But the report is likely to prompt tough questions for Zuckerberg in what is part of a wider showdown between Washington and Silicon Valley. Another flashpoint on Thursday could be Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields social media companies from liability for content their users post.
Repealing the law is one of the few things on which Biden and his predecessor as president, Donald Trump, agree, though for different reasons. Democrats are concerned that Section 230 allows disinformation and conspiracy theories such as QAnon to flourish, while Trump and other Republicans have argued that it protects companies from consequences for censoring conservative voices.
More generally, critics say that tech companies are too big and that the coronavirus pandemic has only increased their dominance. The cozy relationship between Barack Obama’s administration and Silicon Valley is a thing of the past, while libertarian Republicans who oppose government interference are a fading force.
Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have all come under scrutiny from Congress and regulators in recent years. The justice department, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general are suing the behemoths over various alleged antitrust violations.