Congressional Committee presses on voter fraud allegations from cable companies
Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked cable providers what they were doing to fight the spread of misinformation before a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Federal lawmakers grilled Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, the chief of Twitter, three months ago about the disinformation that had emerged on their sites. Now, a legislative committee has called a hearing to report on the role of cable television service providers in spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election.
Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter on Monday to Comcast, AT&T, Spectrum, Dish, Verizon, Cox and Altice, in anticipation of the Wednesday hearing, called "Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media," asking about their position in "the spread of dangerous misinformation."
The members of the committee have sent a letter to Roku, Amazon, Apple, Google and Hulu, the digital cable programming delivery firms.
After supporters of former President Donald J. Trump, who frequently pushed the debunked assertion that the election was rigged, stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, the criticism of cable companies took on new urgency.
Two Democratic representatives from California, Anna G. Eshoo and Jerry McNerney, wrote in the letter, which was checked by The New York Times, "To our knowledge, the cable, satellite and over-the-top companies that disseminate these media outlets to American viewers have done nothing in response to the misinformation aired by these outlets."
"Newsmax defended its election coverage as fair and precise in a statement, calling the letter a "assault on free expression." A Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment. None of the other companies to which the letter was sent immediately responded to The New York Times' inquiries.
In November, Newsmax, a right-wing cable channel owned by AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Dish and Verizon, saw a surge in ratings because of shows that supported the accusations of voter fraud by the former president. The false hypothesis was also supported by One America News Network, a right-wing channel carried by AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon.
One of five defendants in a $2.7 billion defamation case brought by the election technology firm Smartmatic this month was Fox News, the most-watched cable news network, which is available from all major carriers. The company accused Fox News, its parent company Fox Corporation, three Fox anchors and two regular Fox guests in the suit of supporting false statements about the election and the role of Smartmatic in it. (Fox rejected the charges and filed a motion to reject the lawsuit.)
Congress may raise the question of whether cable companies are accountable to millions of Americans for the services they offer, but it will have no means of pressuring them to abandon networks that have spread misinformation. And cable channels do not have licenses that are controlled by the Federal Communications Commission, unlike television stations.
The letter from the legislators asks the businesses, "What steps did you take before, on, and after the elections of 3 November 2020 and the attacks of 6 January 2021 to monitor, respond to, and reduce the spread of disinformation, including encouraging or inciting violence through channels that your business distributes to millions of Americans?" ”
Are you going to continue to carry Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax both now and after the renewal date on your platform? "Continues the message. If so, why? Why? ”
Blair Levin, who served under President Bill Clinton as the F.C.C.'s chief of staff, said a hearing might be a first step toward substantive action. You have to create a factual record that tens of millions of Americans believe things that are just not factually accurate in both the election and Covid, and then try to find out: 'What are the government's proper roles in changing that dynamic? ', said Mr. Levin.
A non-profit organization focusing on telecommunications and digital rights, Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Information, indicated that lawmakers do not have simple ways to exercise control over Fox, Newsmax or OAN.
"You have a lot of people who are very angry about it, a lot of people who want to show that they're very angry about it, but you still don't have a lot of good ideas about what you should do about it," he said.
For now, in the battle against misinformation promoted on certain cable networks, defamation cases brought by private corporations have taken the lead.
Last month, two of Mr. Trump's legal members, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, were sued in separate cases, each seeking more than $1 billion in damages by Dominion Voting Systems, another election technology firm that has figured prominently in conspiracy theories about the 2020 vote. In the weeks after the election, they both appeared as guests on Fox News, Fox Business, Newsmax and OAN.
Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, was sued by Dominion on Monday, claiming that he defamed Dominion with false accusations of election fraud involving its voting machines.