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CLARENCE PAGE: Social media: Everyone’s sharing, no one is taking responsibility

Political correctness is not for liberals only.

That immortal truth returned to center stage Wednesday as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the Senate Commerce Committee.

The conflict between the world views of Big Tech and Congress was well illustrated by a vigorous exchange between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Twitter’s Dorsey.

“Is Twitter a publisher?” asked Cruz, sounding like he was in full future-Republican-presidential-candidate mode.

“No, we are not,” Dorsey said. “We distribute information.”

“So, what is a publisher?” Cruz pressed on.

“An entity that is publishing under editorial guidelines and decision.”

In other words, those who see Twitter as a provider of editorial content to consumers may see it as a publisher. But to Twitter, social networks merely provide a platform through which content creators can reach their audiences.

That conflict lies at the heart of both parties’ interest in last week’s hearings: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, enacted in 1996 when search engines and social networks were very young. As Cruz pointed out, that act defines an information content provider as any person or entity that is “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the internet or any other interactive computer service.”

In writing the law, Congress wisely decided to intrude as little as possible on the new blooming world of internet communication and commerce and revisit the issue later. So far, Section 230 has granted more immunity protection to social media companies than to any other medium.

That’s an excellent reason for the Big Tech giants to show up when they’re summoned to Capitol Hill. That’s OK. Companies with so much impact need to be held accountable.

But unfortunately in this hearing, as in earlier ones, the galaxy of serious questions being raised in society about the tech industries’ vast power and influence kept getting elbowed aside by allegations of liberal bias and censorship of conservative views.

Four years ago, it was Democrats who came in to Big Tech hearings fired up by Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails and intrusions by Russian trolls of her election campaign. This time Republicans were triggered by Facebook and Twitter interfering with tweets that spread the New York Post’s questionable Hunter Biden scoop in October.

The social networks have been making various attempts at reform, including tagging some of Trump’s tweets with fact-checking tags — a move that infuriates him. The president would rather limit us to his alternative facts. So would every politician, I’m sure. But that’s why we Americans revere press freedom, even as each political side complains about the content provided by the other.

Of course, Cruz and other partisans complain that conservatives can’t get an even break. But so do liberals and Democrats.

Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal Media Matters for America, argues that conservative content has been not only plentiful but more often engaged by users, according to his organization’s studies. I’m not surprised. Conservative movement fervor thrives on the internet, making celebrities out of the most outraged voices on both political sides — and tribes.

But the issues of fact-checking, balance and clearing out conspiracy theories ultimately have to rest with the consumer. Government oversight is still important, but for news consumers, “Buyer beware” is still the most valuable motto to remember.

Clarence Page is Chicago Tribune columnist. Send email to cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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