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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republicans and conservatives are unloading on Facebook and Twitter a day after the companies limited the sharing of a New York Post story based on emails and files apparently stolen from Hunter Biden.

Where it stands: The attacks are passionate, but the likelihood of government action against the platforms remains low. Even the most realistic and increasingly popular proposal — to punish online platforms by removing their prized liability shield — would be a steep uphill battle.

Driving the news: Republicans are rallying around shrinking or eliminating Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes tech platforms against lawsuits over both moderation decisions and the material their users post.

  • "We're going to take away their Section 230 unless they shape up," President Trump said after bringing up the news at a North Carolina rally Thursday.
  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Thursday that, in light of the news, "it's time to scrap" Section 230.

At the Federal Communications Commission, chairman Ajit Pai said in a Thursday statement that he plans to go through with crafting rules aimed at limiting the scope of Section 230 protections, as Trump requested in an executive order.

  • Pai said the agency's general counsel concluded that the FCC has the legal authority to do so, an idea that critics on both the right and left have questioned.
  • Any FCC action will depend on a Trump victory in November. Pushing the commission in this direction is a nonstarter for Democrats.

Republicans could also turn to the courts to scotch Section 230. The Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote earlier this week, should look for a case that would let it narrow the law's scope.

  • But for now, at least, getting the John Roberts court to hear such a case and deliver a precedent-breaking ruling may amount to Republican wishful thinking.

The most effective path to rein in Section 230 goes through Congress, which could pass new legislation.

  • There's bipartisan interest in that idea, but the parties' motives are at odds. Republicans focus on claims of anti-conservative bias, while Democrats want to hold tech platforms more accountable for the spread of misinformation.
  • The New York Post case has Republicans furious, while Democrats are likely to see it as a success in the fight against misinformation.
  • It's harder than ever to see them working together on this issue.

Beyond Section 230, Republicans are pursuing other lines of attack against the tech platforms.

  • Hearings: Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans plan to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to make him testify next Friday on the matter. Panel member Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also wants to subpoena Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Both executives are already sure to be grilled about the move when they testify alongside Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a Senate Commerce hearing Oct. 28.
  • Antitrust: Some, like Rep. Ken Buck, reupped calls for antitrust enforcement against the big tech platforms as a response to the moves against the Hunter Biden story.
  • Campaign finance law: In a Thursday letter to Zuckerberg, Hawley argued that halting the spread of the story may be a campaign finance violation, since the move serves, Hawley contends, as an in-kind contribution to the Biden campaign.

Reality check: A hearing might be dramatic, but none of these approaches is likely to show results.


Go deeper

Oct 28, 2020 - Technology

For tech CEOs, Capitol Hill is now mandatory

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Silicon Valley CEOs used to be a rare sight on Capitol Hill, but that's changing due to rising pre-election anger at Big Tech, along with a pandemic-spurred shift to video testimony.

Why it matters: The shift means Congress hears more from the CEOs of powerful companies that are shaping our world. But the hearings' partisan rancor tends to drowns out the policy debate.

Oct 28, 2020 - Technology

Jack Dorsey: Twitter has no influence over elections

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Twitter does not have the ability to influence elections because there are ample additional sources of information, in response to questioning from Republican Sen. Ted Cruz during a hearing Wednesday.

Between the lines: The claim is sure to stir irritation on both the right and left. Conservatives argue Twitter and Facebook's moderation decisions help Democrats, while liberals contend the platforms shy from effectively cracking down on misinformation to appease Republicans.

Oct 28, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Right-wing misinformation could gain steam post-election

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With less than a week until the 2020 election, researchers have expressed concern that the information ecosystem today is ripe for an unprecedented level of exploitation by bad actors, particularly hyper-partisan media and personalities on the right.

Why it matters: The misinformation-powered right-wing media machine that fueled Donald Trump's 2016 victory grew stronger after that win, and it's set to increase its reach as a result of the upcoming election, whether Trump wins or loses.

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