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Sessions To Meet With State Attorneys General About Social Media


Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to meet this morning with a group of state attorneys general. Republicans originally wanted a meeting to discuss claims for which there is no evidence of anti-conservative bias on social media. Instead the meeting is likely to broaden into a talk about the role that social media platforms do play in the public square. NPR's Alina Selyukh came by to tell us more.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: The original announcement did talk about the allegations of bias on social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have been accused of intentionally suppressing conservative viewpoints, which...

INSKEEP: Like, putting them lower in the searches and so forth. They're lower in people's social media feeds, right?

SELYUKH: That was one of the concerns that I believe President Trump has expressed. And at first it did seem like this meeting was a plan hatched among a handful Republican state AGs. Since then the Democratic AGs complained that this was politically motivated. They made the case that there were many other things to discuss about tech companies. Either way, today this meeting will have both Republicans and Democrats.

INSKEEP: So are they still going to focus on the conspiracy theories about social media companies and conservative media?

SELYUKH: I'm sure the anti-conservative bias will be a big topic. The way the Justice Department originally described this conversation was that it was going to be about whether social platforms may be, quote, "hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas." Facebook, Google and Twitter have all pushed back against this and argued that their algorithms are not political. But to break it down, there are two different things going on here. The culture and politics of Silicon Valley is really liberal. There's no way around that. Political contributions from workers there overwhelmingly go to Democrats. But what Trump and others have argued is that technologically the companies have allegedly rigged their software, somehow otherwise are suppressing consumer views, and for that they have not offered any evidence. And another thing to remember is companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, they are private platforms. So theoretically, they can set whatever standards they want for what they allow to be said on their platforms. Though, of course, the companies themselves have long fought to be viewed as those neutral public squares.

INSKEEP: Sure. Well, you've just hit on the dilemma there, right? Because they are private companies, they can do what they want. They have freedom of speech as a company. They can encourage other people to have freedom of speech. And yet, they have this gigantic public presence and public purpose. So now the state attorneys general are going to talk about that with Jeff Sessions. What can the states actually do?

SELYUKH: State AGs can have a fair amount of oversight of social media. They are empowered by pretty broad consumer protection laws. And so actually in the announcement of the meeting, now that is the topic that's designated, consumer protection and the tech industry.

INSKEEP: Meaning the state attorney general of Idaho - just hypothetically - could go after Google? Is that what could happen here?

SELYUKH: Ultimately, even having federal and state attorneys digging under the hood and sort of asking very specific questions about how their algorithms operate can be the kind of attention that the companies do not want. And here's something that's even more interesting to me. The fact that it is now a bipartisan meeting, we might have a conversation beyond the political allegations of bias and into sort of antitrust, how big these companies are and how exactly they operate.

INSKEEP: OK. Alina, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

SELYUKH: Thanks.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.