If Big Tech makes enemies of conservatives, it will have no allies
Several executives of Big Tech companies testified before Congress last week at a critical point for future regulation of the industry. Though the hearing was ostensibly about antitrust, in practice, it was a forum for members of Congress to air their grievances about the influence that technology companies have, especially over public discourse.
While large technology companies are still undergoing enormous growth, even in the face of the massive disruption caused by the coronavirus, they are under fire from both sides in Washington.
Democrats, still trying to delegitimize President Trump’s win in the 2016 election, attribute his victory to the proliferation of “fake news” on social media. In practice, their definition of “fake news” manages to target conservative and pro-Trump content disproportionately while ignoring conspiracy theories fostered on the Left.
Twitter, Facebook, and Google (through its search and YouTube platforms), which are largely dominated by left-liberal executives and staff, have heeded Democrats and begun deplatforming and demonetizing voices on the Right.
Twitter has slapped warning labels on Trump tweets and suspended Donald Trump Jr. temporarily, even as it allows the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, unmoderated use of his account to advocate Holocaust denialism and terrorism and to call Israel a “cancerous growth” that must be “uprooted and destroyed.”
Twitter is a leading forum for public discussion. Facebook and Google are tremendous drivers of traffic to websites. Additionally, Google’s ad platform is a leading way for publishers to make money, and YouTube remains the dominant video platform for independent voices to express their views and earn money.
The left-liberal tech companies mistakenly think they can placate Democrats by targeting conservatives. In reality, philosophically speaking, the Left is much more skeptical of the concentration of power by large companies within an industry and much more willing to use federal regulatory and enforcement power to squash private businesses. Politicians such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren aren’t going to be satisfied because Facebook or Twitter removes a few conservative users.
On the Right, there is a split.
The libertarian streak that runs through the Republican Party and the conservative movement is skeptical of antitrust enforcement and federal regulation. This group is more amenable to having the government step aside so companies operate freely and let the market work out problems. This group believes that those who don’t like the policies of Big Tech are free to start their own platforms, as they have done with Parler, an alternative to Twitter.
But faithful free-marketers are losing the intraparty battle to conservatives prominently identified in Congress with Sen. Josh Hawley. From the perspective of these conservatives, large technology firms have too much control over the content people see. According to this view, if Big Tech is going to enjoy freedom from legal liability and avoid antitrust enforcement, it should be made to provide forums that are free of bias.
These conservatives see how Democrats beat corporations into submission by taking or threatening legal action, and they believe Republicans should not unilaterally disarm by simply singing the praises of the free market and watching as conservative voices disappear behind a wall of corporate censorship.
There are reasons to be skeptical of Hawley’s proposed solution, which would require social media platforms that wish to have immunity from lawsuits to go before the Federal Trade Commission every two years to obtain certification that they are removing content in a politically neutral manner. Such arrangements grant power to the government to police content and would probably lead to even more censorship, as tech companies would probably err on the side of removing any vaguely political content so as not to take any chances.
But tech companies should recognize that if they continue to demonstrate clear bias against conservatives, then Hawley’s side will prevail in the intraparty fight.
This would be unwise for tech companies, for in the long run, their only allies as they get larger and more influential are going to be free-market conservatives, who aren’t automatically spooked when companies become successful.
If Big Tech companies continue to target and make enemies of conservatives, they will unite both sides of the political aisle against them. Democrats already have fewer qualms about going after large corporations.
The solution is not to go in the other direction and disproportionately favor conservative content, but to have platforms get out of content policing as much as possible. If content poses a direct and imminent threat to safety, few would argue with its removal. But once platforms with hundreds of millions of users try to moderate content, when there are large disagreements over what qualifies as offensive or what counts as “fake news,” they are inevitably going to lead to arbitrary judgment calls and bias.
As private enterprises, social media firms are allowed to set their own policies, so this is not an issue about free speech in a constitutional sense. But democracy thrives on open speech, and when companies dominating modern communication platforms restrict speech in a biased manner, the ramifications are alarming.