For better or worse—I’d say worse, but that’s just me—social media sites have amassed enormous political influence over the past decade. Traditional media’s coverage of political and cultural affairs is now largely driven by the topics and issues that dominate platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Last year’s Covington Catholic controversy, for instance, probably wouldn’t have even made it into the headlines if it weren’t for the attention it received on Twitter. And in hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have. The original narrative that emerged from that incident was almost entirely false and led to threats against the students involved. But on Twitter, I can still post links to news reports that got the Covington incident entirely wrong. For a brief period of time, I couldn’t do that with the recent New York Post story on Hunter Biden, and neither could anyone else without running the risk of being locked out of their accounts.
That was a big mistake. As soon as conservatives realized what was going on, they immediately cried foul and accused Silicon Valley of politically motivated censorship. I can’t blame them for that reaction. Over the last several years, we’ve seen plenty of bad reporting from the media that didn’t draw the dramatic response from Big Tech that the Post story did. The Covington story is just one example of that reporting.
Twitter cited their hacked content policy as the impetus for their response to the Post story, but that excuse was never going to fly with the company’s conservative critics. They already admitted that in 2016, they tried to suppress information from the hacked DNC emails that became a major focus of conservative media’s election coverage. Between that admission, their heavy-handed response to the Post story, and their lack of urgency in dealing with questionable and inaccurate reports that favor left-wing narratives, it’s fair to wonder whether Twitter and other social media companies are capable of applying their terms of service in a relatively fair and impartial manner.
If it were up to me, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion because social media companies would only be resorting to censorship under very narrow circumstances. Targeted harassment, the publication of private information (doxxing), and death threats are a few of the most obvious cases in which censorship is surely justifiable. But censorship of opinions and ideas? I don’t think I’d ever go there. And censorship of news stories that might be false or based on hacked content? I definitely wouldn’t go there.
That belief frequently provokes responses based on hypothetical scenarios involving extreme examples. So you think it’s okay for social media users to claim that the holocaust never happened; that white people are naturally violent because of a lack of melanin; that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax; that scientists are lying about climate change; that vaccines cause autism; and that a person’s IQ is determined by their race?
No, I don’t agree with or support any of those ridiculous claims. I just don’t think Twitter, Facebook, or any other tech giant should assume the role of the overbearing parent who insists on filtering out every bit of questionable content that they don’t want their children to see. The national political discourse is heavily influenced by the discussions Americans are having right now on social media. Silicon Valley’s ability to censor those discussions grants them the power to manipulate that discourse to a dangerously extreme degree. I don’t trust them with that power, and I don’t think anyone else should either. It’s a power too great to place in the hands of any private corporation or government entity.
Besides, as the backlash to Twitter’s handling of the Post story demonstrates, censorship can and often does backfire. Would anyone other than the most loyal Trump supporters and far-right grifters even be discussing the Post story right now if Twitter and Facebook hadn’t aggressively tried to suppress it? Perhaps not. Some people call this the “Streisand effect.” Other people call it the law of unintended consequences. I just call it predictable. It should be common knowledge by now that when you tell someone they can’t have something—the “something” in this case being access to a controversial story—it usually makes them want it even more.
There is, of course, a lot of space between full-blown censorship and doing absolutely nothing about the dissemination of misinformation on social media, and we should explore that space to find potential solutions that don’t give social media companies as much control over our political discourse as they have right now.
One potential solution is government intervention. That’s the solution being proposed even by some on the right, but I would beg them to reconsider. Conservatives of all people should appreciate just how risky it would be to get the government involved in this issue. Whenever the majority party takes steps to enhance its own regulatory power, it does so with the understanding that the opposition will, upon regaining control of the government, be entrusted with that same power. Are Republicans prepared to do that? Are they prepared to entrust Democrats with the power to influence the manner in which social media companies regulate political content on their platforms? I’m assuming the answer is no.
Furthermore, any attempt to create new laws that restrict private social media companies from censoring content like the Post story could easily run afoul of the First Amendment and get struck down by the Supreme Court. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened, nor would it likely be the last.
So, what are we to do about this problem? I’m not sure. What I do know, though, is that whatever the solution may be, it should be arrived at through more organic mechanisms than government intervention. The fact that Twitter has already changed its hacked content policy is proof enough that consumer backlash is still the most effective weapon against Big Tech. Conservatives and their anti-censorship allies just need to keep applying consistent, heavy pressure on Silicon Valley to revisit their censorious practices. And if that doesn’t work, well, there’s always Parler.