Facebook, Google, Twitter CEOs prepare to clash with Congress in pre-election showdown

Wednesday’s hearing marks a climax of sorts in Republicans’ tireless quest to portray Silicon Valley as politically biased — and hold Facebook, Google and Twitter’s top executives to account for charges they staunchly deny.

Since Trump reached the White House, GOP lawmakers have mounted escalating attacks against the tech industry. They’ve issued a flurry of statements, held multiple hearings and repeatedly threatened to regulate social media sites, claiming they censor conservative users and news across the Web. Trump himself even held a high-profile summit on the issue at the White House, stoking Democrats’ ire.

Facebook, Google and Twitter acknowledge they’ve made mistakes over the years. But they fiercely resist any claims of bias, and a wide array of experts who study their moderation practices agree there’s no evidence they seek to suppress right-leaning viewpoints. In many cases, the clashes stem from disagreements over what qualifies as harmful content. Republicans see it as a form of bias, for example, when Twitter takes action to label or limit tweets from the president that cast doubt on mail-in ballots. But the company sees this as necessary work to stop the spread of falsehoods about a form of voting that is generally considered safe, regardless of the speaker.

The dispute feeds into an existing debate over Section 230, a decades-old law that spares tech companies from being held liable for their content-moderation decisions. Lawmakers across the political spectrum generally agree that Section 230 may be in need of an update to hold social media giants more accountable for their decisions. But Democrats focus their efforts on harmful content, such as misinformation, while Republicans seek to penalize companies found to be censoring their users over their political views — a schism that has precluded reform.

That tension has set the stage for the hearing featuring all three tech executives. After Facebook, Google and Twitter initially declined to appear at a hearing voluntarily, Wicker moved to hold a vote on the Senate Commerce Committee to authorize a subpoena forcing their testimony. Democrats initially resisted on grounds that the hearing was politically charged — and too close to the election — though they later relented. They agreed to authorize subpoenas in early October that lawmakers never had to send after the three tech executives agreed to appear on their own accord.

Ultimately, though, Wednesday may only be the beginning of more to come: Another panel of Senate lawmakers similarly has moved to force Facebook and Twitter to testify this year.