Thank the gods for Lindsey Graham’s alleged spineless criminality. Without the presence of the senator from South Carolina, today’s Big Tech hearing on censorship and election interference on social media might’ve been completely off-topic.
Back in October, Americans were staring down the horror of Election Day and Senator Graham was filled with righteous indignation over Twitter’s decision to block a link to a dubious New York Post story that appeared to be fulfilling the promise of ratfuckery that got President Trump impeached. Twitter eventually reversed the decision to block the story’s URL and apologise, but the Senate Judiciary Committee still voted to haul its CEO, Jack Dorsey, and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in for another round of questioning. That hearing began this morning and it went about as well as other hearings on the general topic of social media censorship — that is to say, it was off-topic from the moment it started.
When Graham first entered a motion to subpoena Dorsey and Zuckerberg on Oct. 22, he gave his topics of discussion as the censorship of the New York Post article; “[a]ny other content moderation policies, practices, or actions that may interfere with or influence elections for federal office;” and the use of fact-checking labels on user posts. At the time, Graham was all fired up over a potential Trump reelection and the successful confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the hearing began earlier today, Graham seemed in a more conciliatory mood. There was no more talk about election interference. Instead, Graham opened with a long speech about social media being addictive. “Is that a good business practice,” Graham asked. “Maybe so. Does it create a health hazard over time? Something to look at.”
Graham then turned to the familiar GOP talking point that Twitter once left up a post from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini saying it’s ok to question the Holocaust while it flagged a post by Republican Nikki Haley. But for the most part, Graham seemed to enter the hearing with a shrugging indifference. He acknowledged that without the liability protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, then these companies “would have probably never been in existence.”
Rather than citing specific changes that he would like to see made to Section 230 — a law that protects internet platforms from liability for user-generated content — Graham lowered the ambitions of the proceedings saying that he hoped “in this hearing today that we can find a baseline of agreement that Section 230 needs to be changed.” He said that his advice would be “to allow the industry itself to develop best business practices” and suggested that lawmakers start looking at these companies through the “health prism” as some practices may need to be modified because these products “can become addictive.”
So, what happened to that whole idea of exploring the potential of social media content moderation having an improper influence on elections? Well, it’s possible that Graham is feeling a little shy about the subject after the Washington Post published an article in which Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, accused the senator of attempting to pressure him to “toss legally cast ballots” in certain counties in an effort to swing the state’s vote totals in favour of President Trump.
Raffensperger said his family has received death threats from the public as Trump and Graham have spread conspiracy theories about the Georgia election process, and the Post wrote that the Secretary reiterated “every accusation of fraud will be thoroughly investigated, but that there is currently no credible evidence that fraud occurred on a broad enough scale to affect the outcome of the election.”
Graham has called Raffensperger’s assertion that his call was anything but proper “ridiculous” and he said that his main concern is, how to “protect the integrity of mail-in voting,” and to answer the question, “how does signature verification work?” Amost every state has both of these practices in one form or another.
Raffensperger told the Wall Street Journal that Graham suggested throwing out ballots from counties that had “higher rates of signature errors” but that — because doing such a thing would be illegal — the secretary’s staff agreed to ignore the senator.
In the middle of today’s hearing, Graham had to step away to vote in what was announced as a 10-minute recess. The break ran for closer to 30 minutes and the senator answered some questions from reporters. Asked about his call with the Georgia Secretary of State, Graham said, “I talked to Arizona, I talked to Nevada,” as well. Confused, the secretaries of state in Arizona and Nevada quickly issued statements saying that they had not had any contact with Graham. The senator clarified that he spoke with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and said he “can’t remember who [he] talked to in Nevada. But what I’m trying to find out is how do you verify mail-in ballots.” The state procedures for verifying mail-in ballots should be available to any senator with an internet connection.
As for the senator’s stated goal of finding “a baseline of agreement that Section 230 needs to be changed” at the hearing today, he appears to have succeeded before it even started. Senators and witnesses alike took turns throughout the session saying that they think the law should be changed while offering few specific suggestions for accomplishing that. Still, Graham’s mission of exposing malevolent election interference appears to be on track.