House examines the roots of extremism, and hold Facebook and Twitter accountable

WASHINGTON – Political and racial justice activists around the country organize protests and rallies using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but the social platforms also are used by extremists and terrorists to spread their messages, the chairwoman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee said Thursday.

“Social media’s dark side has divided America in a time where we need to come together,” said Chairwoman Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

Far-right extremism in the U.S. is on the rise, accounting for two-thirds of extremist attacks in 2019, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report projects an increase in extremism, both far-right and far-left, in response to the 2020 presidential election as it draws nearer.

The hearing today was held to determine if congressional action needed to be taken, such as amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says platforms cannot be held liable for the content posted buy users.

During the hearing, Facebook came under scrutiny for their syndication of volatile photos and posts. Witness Tim Kendall, who formerly worked as the Director of Monetization for Facebook, described the reasoning behind the company’s use of incendiary posts, comparing the platform’s business model to that of tobacco companies.

Kendall referred to Facebook’s use of “liking,” “sharing” and “tagging” as the platform’s nicotine, which has contributed to a teenage mental health crisis and the flow of incendiary comments. He also said the platform’s algorithm seeks out incendiary content and delivers it at specific times to users.

“Think shocking images, graphic videos, and headlines that incite outrage,” Kendall said. “The result has been unprecedented engagement – and profits.”

And more than profits, the incendiary content is addictive to users, Kendall said, particularly if the content aligns with the user’s own ideology.

“Social media preys on the most primal parts of your brain,” said Kendall. “The algorithm maximizes your attention by hitting you repeatedly with content that triggers your strongest emotions— it aims to provoke, shock, and enrage.”

Twitter was also debated by several senators for its “dangerous rhetoric,” such as the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to defund the police.

“Individuals use social media to intentionally put officer’s lives on the line,” said the top Republican in the subcommittee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

But as subcommittee members discussed the more well-known platforms, Marc Ginsburg, the president of the Coalition for a Safer Web, a not-for-profit non-partisan organization working to find and stop online extremist groups, explained how one less mainstream platform has become a vital tool for rioting extremists.

“TELEGRAM was utilized by both anarchists and white nationalist groups to not only target police but to instigate violence against protesters on the other side,” said Ginsburg.
An encrypted messaging service, TELEGRAM is a Dubai-based company. The messaging app allows for users to create groups with up to 200,000 users and will self-destruct messages.

Ginsburg said extremists who used the app were able to direct their rioters to certain areas during protests.

“We saw that TELEGRAM and communications were directing where rioters should go to the least protected police sites,” Ginsburg said. “TELEGRAM has become the worst application … that is serving as a major conveyor of radicalization.”

Those who testified emphasized the importance of taking social media extremism seriously and the need for action to be taken to minimize the harm of such things. Ginsburg explained that a seemingly isolated incident of extremism on one platform can quickly create a domino effect.

“One radical on Facebook lures a young kid from YouTube to Facebook and Twitter,” Ginsburg said. At the end of his testimony, Ginsburg advocated for changing the rules of Section 230 for content providers.

“There’s no doubt in my mind … that without removing the content immunity granted under Section 230 these companies will never assume the type of obligation that the member of Congress need to have them assume,” said Ginsburg.