When it comes to moderating user content, major social media platforms can’t seem to please anybody.
Congress is examining social media moderation this week in hearings to which representatives from Facebook and Google, among other companies, are invited. On April 9, the House Judiciary Committee will hear about hate speech and white nationalism; on April 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear about technological censorship and the public discourse. Some lawmakers will undoubtedly seize on this chance to browbeat big tech firms, but Congress should resist the temptation to dictate how internet platforms police their users’ speech.
From distasteful memes to real-time depictions of horrific and illegal acts, offensive speech is a growing problem on social media. On one end of the spectrum, Facebook users have live streamed murder on multiple occasions, most notably including the recent mosque shooting in New Zealand. On the other, YouTube in 2017 “demonetized” PragerU, an educational publisher of conservative videos espousing controversial views about topics such as police racism and climate change.
Social media platforms have repeatedly come under fire for taking too drastic a stand on controversial speakers, such as Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos. But these platforms are simultaneously under siege for allowing too much speech to go unfiltered, from ads purportedly aimed at interfering with elections to postings from white separatist groups. This conflicting pressure is at the core of a well-documented dilemma for tech firms: allowing too much speech triggers accusations of insensitivity to harmful messages, while cracking down on polarizing outlets triggers accusations of political bias.
Suspicion that tech companies are susceptible to bias against conservatives is warranted. Only 9 percent of San Francisco voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and there is some compelling evidence of viewpoint intolerance at Bay Area companies. Additionally, some ex-Facebook contractors who worked on news curation revealed in 2016 that they suppressed articles expressing conservative views.
Despite the prevalence of left-of-center thinking in Silicon Valley, alienating conservatives is bad for business. Indeed, to combat the widespread belief by conservatives that their views are unwelcome on social media platforms, tech companies have gone to great efforts to incorporate right-leaning perspectives into their decision-making process. Google recently angered many on the Left when it invited Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James to its AI ethics board. (The company dissolved the board after one week, resisting calls to eject James from the board.) And when the pro-Trump duo Diamond & Silk was deemed unsafe by Facebook last year, the company took pains to correct the error in short order.
One need not accept that leaders at social media networks have a strong incentive to avoid bias to oppose congressional efforts to ensure that the ideological scales are balanced on the internet. If the government were to enter the business of policing bias online, the likely outcome would be less user speech and greater controller by gatekeepers. The easiest way to combat biased content moderation is to erect barriers that prevent many users from communicating in the first place. Even social media platforms that take a permissive approach to user speech are at risk under a government that seeks to eradicate moderation policies that have a disparate impact on certain viewpoints.
Politicians can also endanger the marketplace of ideas on the internet by taking actions short of legislation. In 2010, long before Wikileaks faced accusations of involvement with Russian election interference, it published sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables in conjunction with five major newspapers. Days later, Amazon abruptly cut off service to Wikileaks, despite the lack of any concrete evidence that the site had broken any U.S. laws.
The move came after staffers working for former Sen. Joe Lieberman privately pressured Amazon to stop doing business with Wikileaks. As the Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman at the time, Lieberman’s actions not only chilled the dissemination of political speech, they might have run afoul of the First Amendment. Now, in 2019, the risk of politicians interfering with free speech online by seeking to meddle with social media platforms’ content moderation decision-making is greater than ever.
Congress can best preserve free speech on the internet by following the First Amendment’s command that it make no law abridging this freedom. If and when tech firms exhibit systemic bias, odds are it will be quickly revealed, and users will respond accordingly.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller