In a report, NYU researchers call conservative claims of social media censorship “a form of disinformation” and warn against completely repealing Section 230 (Cat Zakrzewski/Washington Post)

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with Aaron Schaffer

A new report concludes that social networks aren’t systematically biased against conservatives, directly contradicting Republican claims that social media companies are censoring them. 

Recent moves by Twitter and Facebook to suspend former president Donald Trump’s accounts in the wake of the violence at the Capitol are inflaming conservatives’ attacks on Silicon Valley. But New York University researchers today released a report stating claims of anti-conservative bias are “a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.” 

The report found there is no trustworthy large-scale data to support these claims, and even anecdotal examples that tech companies are biased against conservatives “crumble under close examination.” The report’s authors said, for instance, the companies’ suspensions of Trump were “reasonable” given his repeated violation of their terms of service — and if anything, the companies took a hands-off approach for a long time given Trump’s position.

The report also noted several data sets underscore the prominent place conservative influencers enjoy on social media. For instance, CrowdTangle data shows that right-leaning pages dominate the list of sources providing the most engaged-with posts containing links on Facebook. Conservative commentator Dan Bongino, for instance, far out-performed most major news organizations in the run-up to the 2020 election. 

The report also cites an October 2020 study in which Politico found “right-wing social media influencers, conservative media outlets, and other GOP supporters” dominated the online discussion of Black Lives Matter and election fraud, two of the biggest issues in 2020. Working with the nonpartisan think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue, researchers found users shared the most viral right-wing social media content about Black Lives Matter more than ten times as often as the most popular liberal posts on the topic. People also shared right-leaning claims on election fraud about twice as often as they shared liberals’ or traditional media outlets’ posts discussing the issue. 

But even so, baseless claims of anti-conservative bias are driving Republicans’ approach to regulating tech. 

Republican lawmakers have concentrated their hearing exchanges with tech executives on the issue, and it’s been driving their legislative proposals. That could complicate efforts in the new Congress to regulate social media companies — especially because the Democrats’ razor-thin majority means bipartisan momentum is needed to make significant changes.

The New York University researchers called on Washington regulators to focus on what they called “the very real problems of social media.”

“Only by moving forward from these false claims can we begin to pursue that agenda in earnest,” Paul Barrett, the report’s primary author and deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights said in a statement. 

The researchers want the Biden administration to work with Congress to overhaul the tech industry. 

Their recommendations focus particularly on changing Section 230, a decades-old law shielding tech companies from lawsuits for the photos, videos and posts people share on their websites. The law was a frequent target of Trump, who zeroed in on it after tech companies began labeling his posts and eventually suspended his accounts. 

The researchers warn against completely repealing the law. Instead, they argue companies should only receive Section 230 immunity if they agree to accept more responsibilities in policing content such as disinformation and hate speech. The companies could be obligated to ensure their recommendation engines don’t favor sensationalist content or unreliable material just to drive better user engagement. 

“Social media companies that reject these responsibilities would forfeit Section 230’s protection and open themselves to costly litigation.” the report proposed.

The researchers also called for the creation of a new Digital Regulatory Agency, which would serve as an independent body and be tasked with enforcing a revised Section 230. 

The report also suggested Biden could empower a “special commission” to work with the industry on improving content moderation, which would be able to move much more quickly than legal battles over antitrust issues. It also called for the president to expand the task force announced by Biden on online harassment to focus on a broad range of harmful content. 

They also called for greater transparency in Silicon Valley. 

The researchers said the platforms typically don’t provide much justification for sanctioning an account or post, and when people are in the dark they assume the worst. 

“The platforms should give an easily understood explanation every time they sanction a post or account, as well as a readily available means to appeal enforcement actions,” the report said. “Greater transparency—such as that which Twitter and Facebook offered when they took action against former President Trump in January— would help to defuse claims of political bias, while clarifying the boundaries of acceptable user conduct.”

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Facebook executives knew about the prevalence of calls for violence in Groups.

In August, the company’s own data scientists warned that misinformation and calls for violence were common in the majority of the social media network’s civic groups, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Horwitz reports. The findings and the recent attack on the Capitol have led to an overhaul of a feature that Zuckerberg said was the new “heart of the app” in 2019. 

About “70% of the top 100 most active US civic groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinfo, bullying and harassment,” an internal presentation concluded. The company eventually purged thousands of accounts, groups and pages linked to linked to militarized social movements.

Facebook has said it will permanently keep political and civil groups out of recommendations, after initially saying such a change would just be temporary in the United States during the 2020 elections. But people will still be able to join political groups and engage in political discussions if they seek them out on the platform.

More than 2,000 U.S. police and fire departments have partnered with Amazon-owned doorbell-camera firm Ring.

The total number of partnershipswhich allow officials to ask Ring owners in a given area for footage that might assist them in investigationshas more than doubled since last year, the Financial Times’s Dave Lee reports. But the company has been at the center of privacy and security controversies, raising concerns among privacy advocates of the risk of surveillance. 

(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The number of formal law enforcement information requests, such as subpoenas and search warrants, that the company received last year more than doubled since 2019, from 737 to 1,900. But compliance has also dropped, with only 57 percent (down from 68 percent in 2019) of requests resulting in data being handed over.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on digital rights, said the growth in Ring’s partnerships supports its contention that the company is a “massive and unchallenged de facto CCTV surveillance network. 

EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia said that people captured on Ring cameras have not necessarily consented to being recorded. Guariglia obtained Los Angeles Police Department records that show what the requests look like:

A national security panel that reviews tech deals is poised to play a key role in Biden’s China strategy. 

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., a panel that scrutinizes foreign investment in U.S. companies, has been building up its enforcement team and has zeroed in on venture capital deals where money can be traced back to China, the Wall Street Journal’s Heather Somerville reports. The committee’s powers expanded significantly with a new law under Trump, and professionals say the more aggressive approach is here to stay under Biden. 

“It was sort of a sleepy sheriff’s office and now it’s a buzzy SWAT team,” said Reid Whitten, an attorney who leads the CFIUS practice at law firm Sheppard Mullin.

Recent hires include professionals with venture-capital, investment bank and technology experience. 

On the campaign trail, Biden voiced concerns about Chinese tech theft. National security officials and those involved with CFIUS tell the Journal the administration will provide greater clarity on what technologies are crucial to the U.S. military, potentially allowing the committee to work more swiftly in securing them from investors in Russia, China and other adversary states. 

A Biden spokeswoman said that the administration “will ensure that CFIUS evolves into a 21st-century committee and is able to appropriately evaluate new and evolving risks.”

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  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee considers the nomination of Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, President Biden’s pick for commerce secretary, on Feb. 3 at 10 a.m.

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