Jack Dorsey defends Twitter from charges of bias against conservatives

At a House hearing, the social network's CEO says Twitter tries to be politically impartial when it comes to content.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read
Getty Images

Jack Dorsey took the hot seat Wednesday for a grilling from Congress.

Twitter's CEO testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend the social network from allegations of bias, as well as explain what the company is doing to protect its users and curb misinformation.

"How do we earn more trust from the people using our service?" Dorsey said in his opening remarks. "We know the way to earn more trust around how we make decisions on our platform is to be as transparent as possible."

The hearing comes as Silicon Valley faces a reckoning over its scale and influence. Lawmakers and the public have scrutinized the tech industry over its broad data collection practices and its inability to prevent abuse on its platforms. Dorsey earlier testified before the Senate intelligence committee, with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, about what the companies are doing to protect the integrity of the 2018 US midterm elections.

But when it came to getting Dorsey in the spotlight alone, some lawmakers were more concerned about whether Twitter's algorithms censor conservative speech.

"It takes years to build trust, but only 280 characters to lose it," Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks. "It is critical you are living up to your own promises and expectations you set out for your customers."

Dorsey said Twitter tries to avoid bias when it comes to content.

"We believe strongly in being impartial," Dorsey said, "and we strive to enforce our rules impartially."

This is only the latest set of high-profile hearings the tech giants have faced since the 2016 election. The first was last November, when the top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google were called to testify before the Senate and the House over election interference by the Russians. Last April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress in the wake of the social network's Cambridge Analytica data scandal. And in July, the heads of public policy for YouTube (owned by Google), Facebook and Twitter testified over the filtering practices of social networks.

Allegations of bias

No one's tested the content, speech and harassment guidelines of the big tech platforms like Alex Jones, the controversial far-right commentator known for pushing conspiracy theories on his website Infowars. For example, he's said 9/11 was an inside job, claimed the Sandy Hook shooting never happened and was pushed by anti-gun lobbyists, and said survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida -- like activist David Hogg -- were paid "crisis actors."

Watch this: Silicon Valley is in the Capitol Hill hot seat again

Initially, the tech giants resisted removing his content from their platforms. Zuckerberg has repeatedly said he doesn't feel comfortable with his company being the "arbiters of truth." Last month, he sparked outrage while defending Jones by comparing his content to that of Holocaust deniers. Zuckerberg said that while he disagreed with those kinds of posts, they should be allowed to remain on Facebook because some Holocaust deniers weren't aware they were spreading disinformation.

Dorsey appeared on conservative commentator Sean Hannity's radio show last month to argue that Infowars hadn't violated Twitter's rules. "We'll enforce if he does," Dorsey said at the time. "And we'll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren't artificially amplified."

Eventually, several Silicon Valley giants -- Facebook, Google's YouTube, Apple, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Vimeo and Spotify -- banned Infowars from their platforms. Twitter suspended Jones for a week last month by putting his account in a read-only mode, meaning he could see other people's tweets but couldn't tweet, retweet or like posts. The tech giants said they don't tolerate hate speech and that Infowars violated their community standards and guidelines.

Jones attended the Senate hearing earlier in the day. In an interview with CNET, he called Facebook and Twitter "absolute cowards."

Still, several Democrats on Wednesday shot down the idea that Twitter has engaged in conservative bias. In July, the social network was accused of harming Republicans by subjecting them to "shadow banning," or the practice of making a user's posts invisible to anyone but themselves. "This was never targeted at conservative Republicans," Rep. Michael Doyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said. "It's a load of crap." 

More work ahead

Dorsey was also candid about all the work Twitter needs to do to fix its platform. Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, confronted Dorsey about Twitter's confusing community guidelines and inconsistent enforcement policies. Dorsey conceded the policies need to be improved.

"I believe if you went through our rules today and sat down with a cup of coffee you wouldn't be able to understand them," Dorsey said. 

Dorsey also acknowledged that Twitter needs to fix its verification program, which verifies certain users with a blue check mark so everyone else on the platform knows it's actually them. But the program has come under fire because Twitter uses the blue check mark as a signal in ranking what tweets people see. In the past, Dorsey had said the program needed to be rethought. (In February, Twitter said it had "paused" public requests for verification.) On Wednesday, he repeated the sentiment. 

"Our verification program right now is not where we'd like it to be," Dorsey said. 

For Dorsey, the hearings were a marathon. Earlier in the day, Sandberg and he faced a wide-ranging array of topics. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, questioned Dorsey about alerting Twitter users about whether they're interacting with authentic accounts or just bots. The two tech leaders were also questioned about how they're handling "deep fakes," digitally manipulated audio and video. 

CNET's Ian Sherr contributed to this report.

The nine types of Facebook ads that Russian trolls paid for

See all photos

First published Aug. 31, 5 a.m. PT.
Updates, Sept. 5, 10:48 a.m.: Adds details about the hearing; 11:03 a.m.: Includes new information throughout; 12:32 p.m.: Adds more comments from Dorsey and lawmakers. 

The honeymoon is over: Everything you need to know about why tech is under Washington's microscope.

Infowars and Silicon Valley: What you need to know about the tech industry's free speech debate.