WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, worried tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have a bias against conservatives, isn’t comforted by the answers they provided in response to a series of queries he sent them on the matter.
The answers “were completely unpersuasive,” the Republican Utah lawmaker said Thursday in a statement.
He didn’t parse the answers provided by Facebook, Twitter, Squarespace and Alphabet, the parent company of Google. But his worries persist, and he raised the specter of continued efforts on the matter, though he didn’t delve into details.
“I continue to be concerned about the ideological discrimination going on at these firms and I believe further oversight will be necessary in order to obtain the facts and answers that the American people deserve,” Lee said. He’s hosting a hearing next Tuesday called, “Stacking the Tech: Has Google Harmed Competition in Online Advertising?”
In a July 30 letter to the four companies’ leaders, Lee put several detailed questions to them, asking them, most notably, to spell out their standards for removing content from their platforms. He specifically asked them what their guidelines are for removing content related to COVID-19, hate speech and misinformation — red-hot topics as political discourse in the nation heats up ahead of the presidential election. President Donald Trump, facing a tough reelection battle with Democrat Joe Biden, also has charged that companies like Google are biased against the right.
Despite Lee’s skepticism, reps from Google, the operator of YouTube, and the other firms rebuffed suggestions of political bias. Lee provided links to the companies’ responses to his queries.
“Our platforms empower a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences,” Markham Erickson, a Google vice president said in that firm’s answer. “Some of our biggest critics on the right and left have gotten millions of views and subscribers through our platforms.”
As for COVID-19, Markham said Google will remove “harmful misinformation” on the topic that undermine efforts to reduce infection rates.
“We’ve removed 200,000 coronavirus videos globally with dangerous or misleading coronavirus information on YouTube. We’ve also removed over 200 million coronavirus related ads globally for policy violations including price-gouging, capitalizing on global medical supply shortages and making misleading claims about cures,” Markham said.
In his July 30 letter, Lee had expressed particular concern about the censoring by the tech firms of “videos of licensed medical professionals discussing COVID-19.” Just two days earlier on July 28, according to CBS News, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had removed a video featuring Dr. Stella Immanuel and other doctors supporting dubious and debunked claims that certain medications cure COVID-19.
Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. federal policy for Twitter, said the company aims to foster public discussion.
“We welcome perspectives and insights from diverse sources and embrace being a service where the open and free exchange of ideas can occur,” Culbertson wrote in responding to Lee. She went on, saying the firm “does not use political viewpoints, perspectives, ideology or party affiliation to make any decisions, whether related to automatically ranking content or how we enforce our rules.”
Anthony Casalena of Squarespace zeroed in on the company’s decision to remove the website americasfrontlinedoctors.com from its platform. The COVID-19 video that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube had removed on July 28, apparently sparking Lee’s concern, had featured the group America’s Frontline Doctors.
Squarespace had “received multiple complaints about the website and a video accessible through the website,” Casalena wrote. “In reviewing those complaints, we found that the video claimed that there was a cure for COVID-19. The FDA has said that such content could lead to serious and life-threatening harm.”
Accordingly, Squarespace determined the video violated its terms of service and the website was removed.