Republicans in a Twitter rage over Hunter Biden story

If Jack Dorsey testifies to the Senate next week, the Twitter chief executive will have a chance to undo some of the political damage caused by his company’s fumbled response to an article about Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

But it also presents a moment of danger for Mr Dorsey, who analysts say risks becoming the embodiment of Republican complaints about alleged censorship of conservatives by social media companies.

Senators will vote on Tuesday on whether to issue a subpoena to Mr Dorsey following Twitter’s decision to restrict the New York Post article, which it said violated its policies on hacked materials. Officials expect members of the Republican majority to do so, and potentially to issue one also to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive.

Analysts say the hearing, which has already been scheduled for Friday, will give Republican senators a chance to voice their anger towards the industry in general, following a series of moves by Silicon Valley companies which have enraged those on the right.

Sam McGowan, a research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors, a consultancy in Washington, said: “This hearing is really about generating noise. All of these senators are looking for video clips of them grilling Jack Dorsey so they can use it in their campaign material and energise their base.”

Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the committee, said on Thursday he expected the hearing to provide a chance to give social media companies “an accounting that’s long overdue”.

Mr Dorsey will have to explain why Twitter decided to block reporting from the New York Post — even going as far as temporarily banning President Donald Trump’s campaign account, as well as that of Kayleigh McEnany, his press secretary.

Twitter initially cited a policy blocking hacked materials, even though that policy contains caveats for news reporting on hacks, and on the sharing of private personal information. Mr Dorsey then said his company’s communication about the decision had been “not great”, before Twitter updated its policies, saying instead it would only block content shared directly by hackers or those “acting in concert with them”. It also said on Friday that it would unblock sharing of the New York Post article as any private information in the piece was now widely available online and in the media.

Even some liberal commentators have warned that the decision was overzealous. “It was a really aggressive action that they probably can’t substantiate in the long run,” said Angelo Carusone, chief executive of left-leaning non-profit Media Matters. 

“They saw a thing that smelt like bad action, and they tried to shoehorn in a response that was restrictive,” he said.

The row has exacerbated Republican anger more generally towards social media companies after a turbulent few weeks during which the industry has gone further than ever before to restrict disinformation, especially from the right.

Over the summer, Twitter angered Mr Trump by adding cautionary labels to several of his tweets for breaching policies around election misinformation, coronavirus falsities and inciting violence. 

The company has tightened up its moderation policies, last week announcing added restrictions for political candidates and others who share misleading claims. It has also temporarily suspended the accounts of both Mr Trump and his campaign in recent weeks for rule-breaking. 

Facebook, meanwhile, began to take action on some of Mr Trump’s posts more recently, including taking one down for falsely claiming that coronavirus was less deadly than flu. Both have announced moves to crack down on the pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon, as has YouTube

In response, senior Republicans have once more started talking about Section 230, the clause in a 1996 law that gives social media platforms immunity from being sued over content posted by their users. 

Mr Trump has called for the law to be repealed, and earlier this year issued an executive order calling on the Federal Communications Commission to “clarify” when it should apply. Ajit Pai, the FCC chair whom Mr Trump appointed, said on Thursday he would do so — though he is unlikely to make any recommendations until after the presidential election, and may not at all if he subsequently leaves office.

Republicans in the Senate are also making a renewed push to change the law, working on a bill that would restrict when companies should be granted Section 230 immunity, according to Senate officials. Such a bill is likely to build on proposals by Josh Hawley, the Republican senator for Missouri, that companies wanting legal immunity should be forced to show their political neutrality, as well as separate suggestions from the justice department that they should be forced to justify deleting any content.

Both Mr Dorsey and Mr Zuckerberg will testify to the Senate later in the month about Section 230, though with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, any bill is unlikely to pass.

Instead, some analysts think companies such as Facebook and Twitter are currently taking more aggressive action against misinformation now because they see a potential Biden administration as a more realistic threat than another Trump term.

While Mr Biden has also talked about repealing Section 230, senior Democrats are more interested both in passing privacy regulation and in reforming antitrust laws to make it easier to challenge the corporate power of the Silicon Valley groups. 

Mr McGowan at Beacon Policy Advisors said: “The industry wants to show that the self-regulation model works, and that they don’t need Democrats to bring in tougher regulation, because they are making these moves on their own.”

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