In a divided Washington, hating Facebook has brought the left and right together.
It’s a dangerous collaboration.
But when you take a closer look at the complaints lodged by each side, you see how thin their arguments really are.
Most of the left-wing criticism of Facebook amounts to criticisms of human nature. People lie. People are jerks. They seem to want Facebook to be responsible for the fall of man.
Most of the conservative criticisms of the social media platform are allegations of bias. And I’m not here to tell you there is none, because, well, see left-wing criticisms.
People are human. Even people who design algorithms are human. Trying to defend Facebook from charges of bias is a fool’s errand. The sheer volume of content posted daily from all over the globe virtually guarantees that it will make wrong calls.
It has done so with the pro-life groups Live Action and Susan B. Anthony List (and acknowledged at least some of those errors), and I’m sure it will again.
And the left has made its own accusations of bias in Facebook’s fact-checking.
Facebook is a global private company, with 100 billion pieces of content every day, facing differing—and sometimes conflicting—objections from right and left.
Do we really want government to step into this morass?
In an Oct. 17 speech at Georgetown University, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg committed Facebook to defending free expression, pledging that all members of its new appeals board will “each hold free expression as their paramount value.”
Pushing back on demands for more censorship on his platform, Zuckerberg said, “You can’t impose tolerance top-down.” But that fact is not stopping some members of Congress—in both parties—from trying.
While the concerns that motivate the two parties are different, the so-called solutions to the alleged problems posed by Facebook and other social media sites that have been proposed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., aren’t all that different: Regulate Facebook or break it up.
Their rhetoric is also virtually indistinguishable.
Warren argues that “today’s big tech companies have too much power—too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy,” and the solution is to regulate them like public utilities that would be “required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory dealing with users.”
Who gets to determine what’s “fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory”? Rest assured: It won’t be you.
Hawley, who has called Facebook “an extremely creepy company,” says “the line-drawing problems are not as difficult as folks make it sound.”
But who gets to determine who draws the lines? Again, not you.
The stampede from left and right to regulate Facebook, Google, and other tech companies provides a classic example of a useful thought experiment: Every time you come up with a new power for government, think about that power being exercised by politicians you don’t like.
Does Hawley really want Warren determining what’s fair and reasonable? Does Warren really want Hawley drawing lines to determine the level of bias? I’m guessing not.
Conservatives should be particularly wary of this kind of thinking.
Once we breach the dam of government regulation of social media, there is no certainty that you’ll end up with Hawleybook instead of Warrenbook. Given the nature of popular culture today, Warrenbook is a much likelier outcome.
There are also the practical consequences. Some conservatives flippantly call for ending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the provision that ensures that Facebook and Twitter—as well as the comments section of The New York Times, Amazon, and Yelp—are not liable for what their users post.
There are many responses to that, but the bottom line is that ending Section 230 would be the end of social media (and a lot of other user-created online content).
If every social media company is responsible for libel by every user, expect to see the following pop up on your next Facebook status: “Thank you for your status update. It will be posted once it has been reviewed by our legal team. The current wait time is 3 days, 12 hours, 16 min.”
Stack that possible future up against what we have today.
Social media platforms have positives beyond memes and my countdown to Christmas music season. Facebook enables us to stay connected to cousins, distant relatives, and friends from earlier parts of our lives who we would have otherwise lost track of.
It also allows us to interact with a range of people we might never encounter or get a response from in real life, such as artists, authors, sports personalities, even politicians.
It provides a way to raise money for causes, organize activities, and, yes, follow the news.
Beyond Facebook, platforms such as LinkedIn give people a way to build professional networks and find new careers. Figure8 gives parents a way to coordinate carpools in their communities.
Imagine what new platforms will have become part of our daily experience in 10 years?
Everybody likes to hate social media—and some days, I’m right there with them. But for all of its faults, Zuckerberg’s platform has been a net positive in my life and most of our lives.
As a user, I have every right to ask for changes in the product, or I can decide not to use it. But small-government conservatives demanding that government exert its power over a private company to enact my preferences should be off the table.
Ultimately, this is a debate about the democratization of information and how that empowers people.
No one argues that innovation and new technologies don’t come with downsides. But social media are positive tools that make our lives better in ways many of us now take for granted.
Individuals are smart enough and resilient enough to figure out how to use it wisely. More government isn’t the answer. Conservatives ought to know that.