It’s Social Media’s Business Model, Not ‘Bias,’ That Should Concern Congress

Viviana Padelli and Alec Saslow | November 17, 2020

This week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will once again appear in front of Congress, this time at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about unfounded allegations of anti-conservative bias on their platforms -- all while President Trump and his GOP surrogates are waging a public campaign to delegitimize the outcome of the election and control of the Senate still hangs in balance.

First, it’s worth noting the claims that social media platforms are biased against conservatives simply aren’t supported by evidence. In fact, posts by conservative-leaning sites and commentators routinely lead Facebook’s engagement metrics. Instead of being side-tracked by political gamesmanship, Congress should use the hearing and the weeks ahead to take a careful look at how social media and technology companies navigated the 2020 election to inform regulations moving forward. What Congress will see is that despite their efforts, the social media companies’ handling of the election is further confirmation that expecting big tech to self-regulate its failures is a delusional strategy. 

Absent overdue regulatory action, social media companies have reacted to rising scrutiny about their business models and role in spreading disinformation by taking new measures to guard against threats to the integrity of our electoral system from the President, such as by placing warning labels near content with false and damaging information about election results. But the measures they implemented were often inconsistent, belated, and accompanied by unforeseen consequences. In one recent example, Facebook announced it would extend a political ads ban for another month in an attempt to limit paid misinformation during the presidential transition and safeguard outstanding races. But that decision will also damage grassroots organizations and less-moneyed campaigns that depend on the platforms to mobilize their target audience. In the meantime, unchecked disinformation that’s organically promoted and encouraged by Facebook's algorithm will only continue to spread.

To think that extremists who want to spread disinformation are loyal to anyone platform is folly. Extremist groups that spread disinformation are simply hopping platforms as their agendas collide with content moderation from the digital and social media platforms. Without clear and comprehensive laws from Congress that protect the integrity of our democracy, the online ecosystem simply becomes a high-stakes game of disinformation whack-a-mole.  

If Congress is truly interested in preserving democratic values and protecting the future of our elections, it’s time to reckon with the fundamental disconnect between a political discourse based on shared information people can trust and social media companies’ business models, which maximize outrage and engagement by intentionally rewarding divisive and harmful content. That may be a formula that works for stockholders, but it’s devastating our democracy. Big tech has already proven it can’t fix the problem on its own. Before it’s too late, Congress must step in and set the rules of democratic engagement in the digital age.