Ted Cruz Launches New Senate Probe, Demands Answer From Big Tech Chiefs
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has launched a new Senate probe into Big Tech through the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (CST).
Cruz sent four letters to the chief officers of TikTok, Meta, Twitter, and Google asking for information about their platforms’ algorithms.
In each of the four letters Cruz, the ranking member of the CST committee, cited each of the platforms’ use of proprietary algorithms that determine what kind of content does and does not make it to a user’s social media feed.
“As you are well aware, social media companies rely on algorithms to not only moderate content, but also to surface personalized recommendations to users,” Cruz said.
He emphasized the ways these algorithms play a tangible role in politics, noting that “Recommendation systems play an increasingly ubiquitous role in selecting content for individual consumption, including by promoting some content, using product design elements to prominently display recommendations, and downranking or filtering disfavored content and accounts.”
Later in the letters, Cruz wrote, “In a world where seven out of ten Americans receive their political news from social media, the manner in which content is filtered through recommendation systems has an undeniable effect on what Americans see, think, and ultimately believe.”
“At their best,” Cruz added, “recommendations help users discover interesting or relevant content that they might not otherwise find on a platform.”
For instance, social media algorithms can connect users with people they may know, groups, artists, events, or posts that may be interesting, and other personalized relevant content.
But at their worst, Cruz said, these algorithms can be a recipe for addiction and a pipeline to obscene or harmful material, or can be redirected for partisan ends.
“[R]ecommendation systems can also fuel platform addiction by feeding users an essentially infinite stream of content,” Cruz said, adding that these algorithms “can be especially dangerous when recommendations make it easier for vulnerable users, especially teenagers, to find objectively harmful content, such as content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm.”
During the last Congress, the Senate heard whistleblower testimony from a former Meta employee who revealed the ways that social media can guide users and young children to content like the kinds referenced by Cruz.
The Twitter Files
Cruz also cited the “Twitter files,” a trove of documents released by billionaire Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter. The documents revealed the ways that Twitter coordinated with the federal government to suppress certain ideas, stories, or perspectives.
In comments on Fox News, Cruz said the Twitter files would be included in the investigation.
Often, such suppression was carried out through the algorithms mentioned by Cruz, which can detect content that tech executives wish to limit the reach of. This can be done through outright removal of the content, suspension of a user or account, or through “shadow banning,” a covert means of ensuring that the reach of certain posts is highly restricted.
“Taken as a whole, these systems have an outsized impact—whether positive or negative—on the reach of content and accounts and, by extension, speech,” Cruz wrote.
Cruz relayed arguments from some critics who say that such limitations on the reach of content do not entail censorship or First Amendment concerns.
In an article indicative of this attitude for WIRED, a critic of GOP attitudes toward Big Tech said, “Freedom of speech does not equal freedom of reach.”
Cruz rejected this approach, saying: “This kind of soft censorship is still censorship. Likewise, manual and algorithmic interventions that reduce the reach of content—including filtering content from recommendations—are analogous to other interventions, such as content removals, in that they still restrict the poster’s legitimate speech.”
Cruz cited as an example the targeted suppression of a 2020 New York Post story detailing findings from the laptop of then Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. The content of the laptop raised a series of ethical concerns for the Bidens. Photos found on the device showed the president’s son accompanied by an underage girl in lingerie; other photos show the younger Biden smoking crack cocaine.
Cruz fit the letter into an ongoing dispute about the privileges and obligations that Big Tech companies should honor.
For most kinds of media curators, criminal laws against libel apply. Libel laws make an individual or firm legally responsible for untrue, harmful things they publish.
Under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, online media platforms are exempt from these laws, so long as they do not curate content.
The exact definition of “curation,” however, is disputed.
Liberal supporters of Big Tech policy often say that policies against purportedly harmful material, and the removal of such material, do not constitute “curation.” Conservatives have argued that because the user bases of social media platforms have a clear liberal bent, and because conservative content is more often removed or censored, that these platforms do act as censors.
When the bill was passed, the Internet was in its early infancy; since then, it has become intimately integrated into the day-to-day life of many. Thus, many have called for a reconsideration of the 1996 legislation, which is nearly 30 years old.
Cruz is not the only congressional Republican investigating Big Tech.
Currently, Republicans are leading a series of investigations on issues ranging from Big Tech to potential influence-peddling by President Joe Biden in his son’s business dealings.
On Feb. 15, for instance, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) subpoenaed Big Tech executives as part of an ongoing investigation into the Weaponization of the Federal Government.
House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) also is investigating Big Tech as part of his own probe.