Yesterday, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter took heat from senators about how they treat free political speech on their platforms. The criticism was sharp, loud, and bipartisan. Senators were unified in wanting greater regulation of content moderation, but before conservatives, who normally eschew burdensome government regulation, embrace that path, they should heed the warning of one of their own.
There is plenty of reporting and commentary about yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, titled “Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election.”
In short, conservative senators focused on calling out systemic censorship of conservative voices and anti-Trump bias by the tech companies as evidenced by the suppression of the New York Post’s expose on Hunter Biden’s business dealings. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that his company was wrong for suppressing the story by blocking the link to it and suspending the newspaper’s Twitter account. But that apology came too late for many.
Conservatives also got Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg to admit that the Big Tech companies regularly coordinate when they identify harmful content such as terrorism, child exploitation, and foreign election interference on their platforms. Republicans contended that coordination likely extended to censorship of conservatives too.
Liberal senators charged the companies with not going far enough to suppress what they consider falsehoods and conspiracy theories from their political opponents, fringe voices, and voices on the right.
Both sides warned that the horse has left the barn on regulation. They believe that Congress must–and will–act to increase the regulation of content moderation among other policy areas. The only question is how.
The support for increased regulation of online content among conservatives is surprising and troubling.
Censorship of conservative voices and suppression of unpopular opinions undercounts our freedoms and democracy. Conservatives rightly call out these instances. However, we must also recognize that social media platforms offer conservatives unprecedented opportunity and ability to spread their messages, attract followers, and advance the conservative movement in ways that are impossible with an extremely partisan legacy media ecosystem. New regulations may not stop censorship but worse, may undercut the advantages that social media provides and trigger other unintended consequences.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska was the lone voice crying in the wilderness and pushing back against the populist energy to regulate.
He pointed out to tech companies the problems that lead conservatives to feel they are biased against them, saying,
… I don’t think the standards are very transparent and I don’t think the execution is very consistent.
Then he took his colleagues to task:
That said, I’m more skeptical than a lot of my colleagues, I think on both sides of the aisle, about whether or not there’s a regulatory fix that will make it better instead of worse.
Not only is legislation not a panacea, but who determines the regulations matters. A potential Biden Administration, Democratic-led Congress, and left-leaning leaders at the helm of regulatory agencies may write the rules in ways that leave conservatives worse off.
I especially think it’s odd that so many in my party are zealous to do this right now, when you would have an incoming administration of the other party that would be writing the rules and regulations about it.
Senator Sasse is right that we must temper blanket calls for greater regulation of social media companies on the content moderation front. Congressional leaders seek to reform a set of liability protections, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that shield online companies from being sued over the moderation or removal of content uploaded to their websites by users.
Conservatives are right to want more freedom of speech online and equal application of moderation rules. It remains to be seen what-if any- reforms will achieve that without triggering worse unexpected outcomes.