Facebook must stop President Trump from “mislead[ing] the American people,” says the Democratic National Committee. Demands from Democrats that social media platforms “fact-check” or otherwise censor political ads and posts are rapidly accelerating this fall and having an impact. Twitter responded two weeks ago by banning political ads altogether.
These attacks on free speech from the left are chilling but sadly predictable. What’s surprising is that more and more conservatives are calling for top-down intervention — by the government no less — into social media content.
Among the loudest voices on the left are the presidential contenders. Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris is urging Twitter to suspend the president’s account, citing tweets that “baselessly discredit the [Ukrainian] whistleblower and officials in our government.” Other 2020 contenders have echoed her calls.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign demanded that Facebook and other platforms remove a “false” Trump ad accusing him of pressuring Ukraine to benefit his son while serving as vice president. Never mind that the Biden campaign simultaneously ran a Facebook ad with the unproven claim that Trump is “pressuring the Ukrainian president to work with Rudy Giuliani to smear Joe Biden.” (RELATED: Trump Delivers The Google-Facebook Reckoning That Obama Refused)
Facebook, whose policy is to not fact-check politicians’ ads or posts, denied Biden’s request. The company has emphasized the inappropriateness of it refereeing political debates or censoring politicians.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s protests have drawn the most attention. Her Facebook ad claims that the company “already helped elect Donald Trump once. Now, they’re deliberately allowing [him] to intentionally lie to the American people. It’s time to hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable.” Presumably, Warren would exempt her claims from the fact-checking she urges.
Even if the fact-checking were done by dispassionate robots — it won’t be anytime soon — platforms would be put in the impossible position of refereeing virtually every political debate in the nation despite the thin or non-existent line between misinformation and a point of view we disagree with. Even if Facebook were to send an investigatory team to Ukraine, it would have zero chance of satisfying both sides. What Warren and her ilk are demanding is both a hopeless task and a dangerous concentration of power in the big tech companies they distrust.
The good news is that Facebook, Democrats’ favorite target, is resisting the pressure. In remarks last month at Georgetown University, Mark Zuckerberg lamented that “Increasingly, we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous,” while no longer “trust[ing] their fellow citizens … [to] decide what to believe for themselves.” He emphasized that “this is more dangerous for democracy … than almost any speech” and concluded that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.”
Conservatives should embrace that sentiment and remind Zuckerberg of it if Facebook falls short. But instead, some conservatives want the government, not the people, to be the monitors of social media content.
Most prominently, many conservatives are supporting a bill introduced by Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley that would hold hostage the law that allows social media to flourish by shielding websites from liability for user-posted content. The bill would strip big platforms of that protection unless they can prove to the federal government — specifically the Federal Trade Commission — that their content moderation has no political bias.
I thoroughly share Hawley’s concern for instances of conservative bias on tech platforms. But his big-government solution is worse than the problem. In fact, it would require the FTC to monitor social media content in ways similar to what Democrats are demanding of Facebook and Twitter.
Much like the left’s demands, Hawley’s bill is premised on the idea that top-down control is needed because individuals can’t be trusted to evaluate social media content – in this case, to weed through bias. If that were true, Donald Trump would never have been elected.
Moreover, the FTC would be put in the impossible position of refereeing virtually every accusation of platform bias with all the subjectivity that entails. The Commission would be asked to essentially read the minds of platform employees to determine whether political bias informed each content moderation decision, with little chance of satisfying activists on the right or left.
Worse yet, Warren and company would get the fact-checking they’re clamoring for because you can’t evaluate bias without first determining whether the content allegedly subject to bias is truthful or not.
The Hawley bill would create an even more dangerous concentration of power than the self-censorship Democrats want, because the censor would be the biggest monopoly of all, the federal government.
Even those conservatives ready to cast limited-government principles aside should consider that Hawley’s idea would prove disastrous for them given that the left is much better at playing victim and using the media to pressure government officials. On top of that, the FTC staff that would do most of the bias detection work leans left — like all federal bureaucrats — even under GOP administrations.
Proposals like Hawley’s play into liberals’ regulation-happy hands. If free speech on the internet is legislated away, it will likely be Republican votes in Congress that enable what Democrats cannot do alone.
Curt Levey (@Curt_Levey) is president of the Committee for Justice, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rule of law and constitutionally limited government. Before attending law school, he worked as a scientist in artificial intelligence.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.