Jack Dorsey told a Senate panel on Wednesday that Twitter does not have the power to influence elections, just days before a US presidential vote where the actions of his and other social media platforms have come under intense scrutiny.
The Twitter boss appeared via video before the Senate commerce committee alongside Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai, where the chief executives sought to defend their content moderation processes as unbiased.
The committee is one of several bodies reviewing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a law that gives tech platforms immunity from being sued over user-generated content.
Such sweeping protections are seen by some as too generous. Republicans have claimed the companies censor rightwing voices after the companies restricted some of President Donald Trump’s posts for breaching their misinformation policies. Separately, the platforms have faced calls from leftwing groups to better police user content in the wake of evidence that Russia used social media to try to manipulate voters in the 2016 US election.
But responding to a question from Texas senator Ted Cruz, Mr Dorsey said that he did not believe his platform had the power to influence elections.
“We are one channel in a spectrum of communication channels that people have . . . People have a choice of other communication channels,” Mr Dorsey said.
“If you don’t think you have the power to influence elections, why do you block anything?” Mr Cruz asked. Mr Dorsey replied that the company moderated content in order to stop abuse and harassment and to ensure that voices were not silenced.
Committee chairman and Republican senator Roger Wicker opened the hearing by accusing Twitter and the other platforms of “selective censorship . . . in the midst of the 2020 election cycle”.
He cited the decision by Facebook and Twitter to add restrictions to a New York Post story about presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, dissemination of which was curbed on the basis that it was based on hacked materials. But, Mr Wicker said, the platforms had not restricted a damning New York Times story about Mr Trump’s tax returns.
“Observers are left to wonder whether big tech firms are obstructing the flow of information to benefit one political ideology,” the senator from Mississippi said.
All three platforms have denied that they are biased towards any political party. Research suggests that rightwing content tends to receive some of the highest engagement on the platforms.
In his opening statement, made public on Tuesday, Mr Zuckerberg became the first big tech group leader to endorse some reform of Section 230, calling on Congress to “update the law to make sure it’s working as intended”.
While Mr Zuckerberg did not say which specific reform proposals he backed, he expressed support for “ideas around transparency and industry collaboration that are being discussed in some of the current bipartisan proposals”.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican head of the Senate judiciary committee, is leading one bipartisan effort that would create a national commission — including heads of law enforcement agencies, legal experts and industry executives — to set a series of “best practices” for internet companies to follow. Only companies that followed those guidelines would be granted Section 230 immunity.
By contrast, Mr Dorsey said that “eroding the foundation of Section 230 could collapse how we communicate on the internet, leaving only a small number of giant and well-funded technology companies” able to fully police content and deal with legal liabilities.