Dear Government, Please Leave Facebook the Hell Alone

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Tech companies control our fate. Or at least our thoughts. That’s the basic premise behind an oddly counterintuitive push for more government regulation of internet companies by the conservative right. 

That group recently and rightly cheered FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for putting a stop to Net Neutrality. It’s the same group that lambasted the Fairness Doctrine, and its disguised return under former President Barack Obama.

It goes against type, but obviously the drone of “it’s not fair” coming from the bully pulpit has had some effect on the psyche of the right wing. Because now, there is growing sentiment within that same group that government is needed to prevent tech companies—social media especially—from targeting conservatives for removal; from silencing the thought from the right. 

Complaints from the right about social media, and Twitter and Facebook in particular, aren’t unfounded. It was long theorized that Twitter, for example, was “shadowbanning” conservative users. That is, limiting the availability of their tweets to other users, hiding them from the timelines of even people who follow them, excluding them from searches, etc... That theory was given additional credence a few weeks ago when Twitter announced that it would be doing this exact thing as a matter of policy going forward.

To address this problem, many on the right are now calling for the feds to regulate search engine algorithms, Facebook sharing, and tweets. The free market, they argue, isn’t a sufficient check, because the public spaces of social media essentially aren’t reproducible and therefore exist without competition.

Writing for National ReviewJohn Hawkins argues that, “social media has come to dominate our national conversation” and that “political websites thrive or die based on changes to Facebook and Google algorithms.” He then offers a quote from former Google employee Tristan Harris as further evidence of this point. 

A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today. I don’t know a more urgent problem than this. It’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships that we want with each other.

It is a dire and alarming assessment, if you accept the premise. But Hawkins’ solution is just as dramatic: using anti-trust to actually break up large tech companies for the good of America.

Alternately, Victor Davis Hanson, also at National Review, doesn’t want to break up the tech companies, he wants to enthrone them in red tape and imbue them with the stamp of authority.

Hanson says we need a “bipartisan national commission” to “offer guidelines to legislators about how to make sure that these companies do not abuse their enormous powers of surveillance and data acquisition, vast wealth, and monopolistic control of how we write, think, shop, and communicate.” He’s advocating creating a new big government beast with amazing power to regulate both capitalist enterprise and free speech! And the reason? To protect safe spaces. Not exactly conservative.

In both cases, the argument rests on the premise that big tech companies are a sort of public utility, an irreplaceable and vital function to which the government must guarantee access. President Obama made a similar argument in favor of the infamous “Obama phone” program: these technologies are necessary to modern American life, and those who do not have them are disenfranchised.

Disenfranchisement as a concept is also at the heart of the lawsuit that just resulted in a court ruling that President Trump’s Twitter account cannot block other users from seeing his tweets. A judge determined that a public official blocking a citizen from following them on Twitter because of their replies or tweets violates their First Amendment protections. 

Conservatives showered social media with reactions ranging from mockery to outrage after the court’s ruling. But the decision in that case is a virtual blueprintfor those on the right arguing for regulation of these tech entities, establishing the service as a public forum, one the government can and should require fair access to it.

More important than the nature of the solutions is that they’re being offered for a problem that may not even exist. Not yet, anyway.

This may be heretical, but the very premise that social media is disfavoring conservative ideas or even Trumpist ideas is questionable. Even stipulating that efforts at silencing voices on social media are almost exclusively directed at the right, it doesn’t answer whether those efforts have actually worked.

For weeks now, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, websites like Politico and TheWashington Post, and people in general were using the term “spygate.” It is a term coined by the president to make the idea of an FBI informant seem less law-enforcement and more The Falcon and the Snowman. On social media, Republicans and the #MAGA legions used the tagline relentlessly from the moment the President uttered it. It was a top trending hashtag the day he said it. 

That was the right, setting narrative. There was neither an attempt by social media titans to censor it nor a need for the government to come in and ensure that it remained trending.

How about special counsel Robert Mueller himself? If Bush 43 were under such an investigation, there would almost certainly have been no easily available, widespread counterattack. But today, the president’s push back on the investigation, distrust of Mueller, and related talking points are common knowledge. They are ubiquitous on Twitter.

If you use Facebook, you either have a relative or ARE the relative who has said “witch hunt,” “wiretap,” or “swamp” a thousand times. I’d wager you can’t walk up to a water cooler in America and find someone unfamiliar with the phrase “deep state.”

Silenced? If anything you can’t get the right to just take a breath. 

This is a good thing. I mean, it’s a bad thing if people believe crazy talking points or undermine serious investigations. But it’s good that people can speak and be heard on the internet. That’s what it’s for. It’s working, and contrary to the alarmists, it’s working especially well for the right.

So why are conservatives trying so hard to get the government involved in regulating the free internet that not only has worked to their advantage in the past but is currently still a boon? 

Here is one more argument offered in favor of government intervention in these platforms, specifically the spreading of Fake News, which is obviously a top concern for the Trump right.

We talk about how 55 percent of Americans get their news from Facebook. And we talked about regulations that need to be put in place. There should be a threshold, where they have to send out a blast to every Facebook subscriber that got these false stories, that the story they got was a lie. And until they do that they are being irresponsible.

That’s not a MAGA writer or a Trump partisan. That’s Joe Scarborough lamenting the spreading of “all the lies and conspiracy theories that are hurting democracy today by Republicans.”

Left, right, or whatever Morning Joe is, each has the same basic premise: The bad guys are winning because the government isn’t helping the good guys fight back. This has been the argument between left and right on social media since the dawn of hashtags.

This is a solution in search of a problem that will only create a problem with no solution. I shouldn’t have to remind conservatives that the slippery slope of government intervention rarely ends up benefiting conservatives. But consider yourselves reminded. 

Right now, the best way to fight unfairness by content control dictatorships like those at Google, Facebook, or Twitter, is to complain loudly, argue effectively, and be prepared to walk. Maybe someday the situation will be so intensely intolerable that getting government to act will be the best, last resort. But that is not this day.

Today, you can read an article at The Daily Beast about the unfairness of Twitter toward conservatives by clicking on the link on Twitter shared by a conservative. You see what I mean?