Photo: Eric Kayne (SumOfUS) (AP)
Midway through a congressional hearing Thursday in which U.S. lawmakers spent hours interrogating the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google for their role in America’s disinformation crisis, Jack Dorsey seemed fed up.
The hearing, which was held via video conference and led by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saw lawmakers insist on straight answers from tech’s titans—often demanding that the executives respond to their questions in simple “yes” or “no” answers. Would Facebook admit that it had played a role in radicalizing the participants of the Jan. 6th insurrection—yes or no?! Would Google be willing to overhaul YouTube’s word recommendation engine to correct radicalizing search patterns: yay or nay? Won’t Twitter commit to taking down all covid-related misinformation on its platform?
This little routine culminated with one particular dressing down by Rep. Billy Long R-Mo., who asked the executives whether they knew “the difference between the word ‘yes’ and ‘no’?” Shortly afterward, Dorsey appeared to mock legislators by merely tweeting the following:
This tweet perfectly encapsulates how the hearing went—and how all hearings like this tend to go: Congress can yell at Big Tech all it wants, but until our government actually passes regulatory reform with teeth, the best we’re going to get from these guys is the occasional smart-ass tweet.
Yes, it seems like way too often now that Congress drags Dorsey, Facebook’s Zuckerberg, and Google’s Sundar Pichai away from their cloistered mansions to yell at them and ask why they are playing such a big role in the epidemic of online misinformation and propaganda sweeping the country. But this kind of political theater—apparently designed for the public’s benefit (despite how amazingly boring each and every hyped-up hearing is)—never gets us anywhere because, after the yelling stops, no new meaningful, passable, not-disastrous-in-its-own-way regulations ever emerge.
Some commentators are saying that this time it’s different. The Jan. 6th Capitol riot—and the obvious role big tech platforms played in catalyzing it—has brought the level of alarm and outrage over social media companies to a boiling point. And, indeed, some congressional committees have been talking about regulations—though the polarization spurred by these very platforms has, ironically, made it difficult for any sort of bipartisan consensus to emerge.
Throughout all this, a question has emerged: Why do we need to have these hearings at all? Shouldn’t Congress just be talking to each other about the best way to handle this legislatively, instead of yelling at large companies for not self-regulating better (something big companies typically don’t do very well)?
One other major reason our elected officials may prefer this now regular Punch-and-Judy show to anything resembling real reform is that, despite Big Tech’s noxious effect on the nation as a whole, these companies certainly do know how to write a fat check. Since 2005, more than half a billion dollars has gone from the top five biggest tech companies towards various lobbying efforts. A recent report from Public Citizen showed that “Big Tech” has effectively “eclipsed yesterday’s big lobbying spenders, Big Oil and Big Tobacco.” True to corporate America’s playbook, the biggest tech firms give generously to both political parties and try to spread the money around equally, when they can.
Meanwhile, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle get to act tough in front of Mark Zuckerberg. Then they can send their constituents donation requests alongside claims that they’re cracking down on Big Tech rather than just talking.
For everyone’s sake, let’s skip the next four-hour verbal assault on Zuck, Jack, and Sundar and, instead, get together and do that thing lawmakers are supposed to do: pass some laws. What say ye, Congress? Y or N?