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Senate Republicans Take Aim at Liability Protections for Social Media Companies ahead of November Election

(Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Senate Republicans are undertaking renewed efforts to probe social media companies over claims of bias against conservatives ahead of the November election at the behest of the White House, according to a new report.

Politico reported that the Trump administration had urged Senate Republicans on key committees to hold public hearings on the law that shields internet companies — including social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter — from lawsuits over content posted by third party users.

Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) is holding a markup of new legislation on Thursday that would address allegations of anti-conservative bias on social media, while Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) will hold a vote that same day on whether to issue subpoenas to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Wicker attempted last week to issue subpoenas that could have compelled the CEOs to testify on short notice, but the effort failed as Democrats resisted what they see as politically-driven attempts to force social media companies into pulling back on policing misleading posts by Trump and his allies. 

The committees are focused on liability protections granted by a 1996 law, Section 230, that has exempted online businesses from facing lawsuits over user posts or moderation tactics. Republicans say the law has enabled social media platforms to censor conservatives without fear of legal action, though tech companies argue no such bias exists.

Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), a vocal critic of Section 230 who just last week failed to pass his own bill that would have given users more recourse to sue online businesses in the event their posts had been subject to discrimination, said Trump has been a driving force in uniting his colleagues to revamp the law.

“There’s hardly a conversation I have with the president where this doesn’t come up, where Section 230 does not come up, usually raised by him,” Hawley told Politico. “It is much on his mind and I think his strong stance on this issue has had a big effect in opening the eyes of some of my Republican colleagues to realize this is a major issue.”

Social media companies have drawn the president’s ire after Twitter began adding fact-check and warning labels to some of his tweets, leading him to issue an executive order in May requesting that his independent agencies crack down on the liability protections. 

Twitter was the target of conservative outrage in August when it suspended a slew of conservative satire and parody accounts including the Babylon Bee, Titania McGrath, NPC Daily, Liberal Larry, and Jarvis DuPont. The Babylon Bee was quickly reinstated after Twitter said it had suspended the account in error.

One month earlier the social media platform temporarily restricted Donald Trump Jr.’s account, barring him from tweeting for 12 hours after he shared a video that Twitter said was “in violation of our COVID-19 misinformation policy.” The video had peddled disinformation about COVID-19, including that masks are unnecessary and that hydroxychloroquine is a “cure” for the coronavirus.

While the White House would not confirm it was the source of the renewed efforts to reform Section 230, it expressed support for the efforts.

“We support congressional efforts to shed light on Section 230 liability issues and possible abuses by the tech industry,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said. “It’s unfortunate Democrats are attempting to block these efforts.”

The Democrats argue Republicans have taken their campaign a step too far, particularly in seeking to subpoena the social media companies.

“These are not what our oversight powers are supposed to be used to do,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.

Blumenthal, who has worked with Graham over the past year to negotiate a separate bill that would target Section 230 and sexually exploitative material online, argued that the push could “set back” bipartisan efforts to reform Section 230.

“I am not interested in using our subpoena power to try to play or game the refs days before an election, which is clearly what Republicans are doing,” Blumenthal said. “The timing shows that these subpoenas are clearly calculated to chill efforts to get misinformation or falsehoods from abroad or domestic groups [removed].”

Blumenthal would not rule out a boycott of the subpoena vote in protest.

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