SZABO: Social Media Has Enabled People-Driven Politics, So Why Regulate It?

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Carl Szabo NetChoice
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Throughout history, established interests worry whenever more power is given to the people. When Guttenberg unveiled the printing press it empowered “commoners” with a new way to disseminate information and ideas. Of course the Crown and Church worried about their loss of control which ultimately led to new religions and emerging democracies.

Social media is the modern-day printing press. Empowering people across the world to challenge the established powers that be. We wouldn’t have had movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy, MeToo, BlackLivesMatter, Haiti relief, or even the Ice Bucket Challenge were it not for social media connecting citizens.

Today, we are starting to see social media’s democratic power strike fear in the political establishment. The empowered elite realize that giving people more power to communicate and share information could be a threat to their control. 

The rise of digital connectivity has empowered “peopledriven politics” in which we no longer need to ask the major political parties to add our issues to their agenda. The things we care about can be shared directly with a candidate or policymaker.

President Obama was dubbed the first “social media candidate.” Obama was never supposed to be on the final ballot — party leaders had already decided their nominee in 2008 would be Hillary Clinton. But social media empowered the left wing base and otherwise ignored Democrats used social media to make their voices heard. 

Likewise in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders gained huge levels of support in an otherwise uncompetitive Democratic primary. This was largely driven by his supporters successfully leveraging the power of social media platforms.

And social media has given rise to additional new voices challenging the establishment, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and created the opportunity for petitions via platforms like Change.org. 

But Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley’s attack on social media platforms shows that the establishment is trying to return us to the era where only the elite control the means of communication and decides what news and views are discussed. They continue to advocate for a handful of newspaper editors and TV anchors to control what we read and hear.

Some of America’s leadership are looking to Europe’s establishment for inspiration on how to control speech online.

Thankfully, our First Amendment prevents the government from directly regulating freedom of speech.

Yet, while the First Amendment prevents Congress from passing laws to directly control our speech on social media, it doesn’t stop politicians from threatening other legal reprisals against social media businesses. Pelosi recently threatened Section 230 of the Common Decency Act — a vital law for user-generated content and free expression — to pressure social media platforms to remove content that showed her in an unflattering light. This sets a dangerous precedent where politicians could threaten social media platforms to remove content that they don’t approve of.

Section 230 does the same for social media platforms. It allows online platforms to host people’s content without assuming liability for the contents’ veracity. This has supercharged speech online, empowering minority communities to speak out and mobilize in ways that force the establishment to pay attention. 

It’s not that Pelosi really wants to remove Section 230, but her threat is specifically designed so that when the speaker demands removal of content she finds insulting, the social media platforms will comply quickly for fear of retribution.

These attacks on Section 230 are really an effort to exert control over platforms and force them to remove content unflattering to leading politicians.

Lawmakers should appreciate how social media, enabled by Section 230, has created a free flow of information that empowers our democracy. It has empowered us to communicate directly with our representatives and our fellow citizens.

Platforms like Change.org, Twitter, Facebook, and MobilizeAmerica enable regular Americans to challenge the powerful. As the leader of a party that claims to act in the interests of the vulnerable, Pelosi shouldn’t threaten social media platforms that have done so much to empower so many. Government should not seize control of the modern printing press.

Carl Szabo (@CarlSzabo) is general counsel for NetChoice, a trade association of eCommerce businesses and online consumers that includes Google and Facebook. Szabo is also an adjunct professor of privacy law at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.