On Monday, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz told The Hollywood Reporter he was chairing a Wednesday hearing of the Judicial Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and interviewing executives from tech giants Twitter, Google, and Facebook on — as the hearing title alludes to — “Stifling Free Speech: Technology Censorship and the Public Discourse.”
Cruz was specifically interested in ascertaining how the anti-abortion film “Unplanned” found itself suspended on Twitter the weekend it opened after previously being denied banner ad purchases from Google.
The senator told THR he was troubled by the idea that “big tech” might be targeting users based purely on political affiliation.
Unplanned, a Pure Flix movie critical of abortion and of Planned Parenthood, opened March 29, and the next morning Twitter suspended the movie’s account because it was linked to an account that had violated rules. After users tweeted their displeasure to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the decision was reversed and the account was reinstated about an hour after it had been suspended.
When it comes to Unplanned, “The ridicule of the mainstream media and Hollywood is to be expected,” Cruz told The Hollywood Reporter. “But big tech’s attempted censorship of (Johnson’s) story during it’s opening weekend is deeply troubling and revealing. I have repeatedly asked tech companies for basic data on how many voices on their social platforms are silenced and to what extent it is politically targeted. I intend to keep asking these questions, and hold them accountable.”
As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of a systematic bias against conservative media,” added [co-writer and co-director Chuck] Konzelman. “We were on Twitter for nine months and an error occurred on opening weekend? That’s not much fun. It’s the film’s theatrical debut. Couldn’t they check their facts a little bit?”
Konzelman also noted that Twitter made it impossible for users to follow the film’s official account for a period of the week following its opening.
“Abby Johnson, the subject of our film, and Ashley Bratcher, our lead actress, both found out they were unable to follow their own film for a time on Twitter last week,” Konzelman said.
Cut to Wednesday morning and reports from the hearing indicate that Twitter passed on answering whether or not they would be comfortable with a third-party audit of potential bias at the site.
Carlos Monje Jr., Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy, evaded questions about whether the social media company is willing to subject itself to an independent audit. Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Hawley peppered Twitter and Facebook Public Policy Director Neil Potts with questions about the company’s supposed political bias during a Senate Judiciary hearing.
“Will you commit to a third-party audit of potential (political) bias within Twitter?” Hawley asked Monje Jr., who responded by reiterating that the company publishes a Twitter transparency report every six months.
He invited the senator to view the report on Twitter’s homepage after the next one is published, but Monje Jr. did not provide Hawley a straight answer on the subject.
“The notion that we would silence any political perspective is antithetical to our commitment to free expression,” said Monje Jr. as he sought to fight claims that Twitter employs so-called shadow bans against conservatives.
The thinly-veiled tone of someone aghast at the mere suggestion they would censor conservative users is a bit galling considering how many stories are out there about conservative accounts losing followers, having their content reach manipulated and mitigated, and having their accounts sometimes outright suspended for what amounts to thought crimes.
The debate over tech giants failing to police their sites for extremist and potentially threatening rhetoric yet casually punishing those who merely express conservative opinion isn’t likely to be settled soon. But it is a revealing new part of the conversation when one of those giants refuses to consent to even a cursory investigation of their practices regarding those with opposing viewpoints. Because if it’s discovered tech giants make it a practice to actually curate content — and police what’s available for other users to see — then Twitter et al stops being a passive player and they’ll have to start accepting responsibility for the consequences of not only what some of their users say and do, but their own role in stifling speech.