Enough With The Myth That Big Tech Is ‘Censoring’ Conservatives AND That The Law Requires Them To Be Neutral
I feel like we need to repost this on a near weekly basis, but there are two big myths that keep making the rounds over and over and over again, so they need to be repeatedly debunked. First, it’s the idea that internet companies are “censoring” conservatives. And, yes, I know that we’re going to get some angry commenters pinky swearing that it’s true, and calling me all sorts of creative names for not being willing to admit it, but it remains true that there has been absolutely no evidence shown to support that premise. The other one, which is related, is the idea that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act somehow was premised on platforms being “neutral.” Three recent articles tackle these myths, and it seemed worth highlighting all three.
We’ll start with Siva Vaidhyanathan’s piece in the Atlantic, responding to the bogus cries of censorship. Vaidhyanathan points out that, rather than censoring conservatives, Republicans seem to have used these platforms to great advantage:
There is no evidence for these accusations. There are no legitimate studies supporting these contentions. There is no documentation of company officials ordering up anti-conservative bias or policies.
But to say there is no evidence for these accusations is too weak. These complaints are just false. Coming from smart people who know better—smart people like Cruz, the first U.S. presidential candidate to hire Cambridge Analytica and try to use its trove of personal Facebook data on millions of Americans—this looks like an intentionally duplicitous move.
Cruz knows that conservatives need Facebook and Google and that they benefit greatly from the algorithmic amplification that occurs in both systems. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager is Brad Parscale, who ran digital operations for the president’s successful 2016 campaign. Parscale declared that his mastery of Facebook for advertising, amplifying pro-Trump videos and memes, and fundraising won the 2016 election.
He further notes that there actually are studies showing that conservative campaigns have leveraged social media to a much greater advantage:
Scholarship supports this conclusion. As the sociologist Jen Schradie demonstrates in great detail in her new book,
The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives, Facebook and Google work better for top-down, well-funded, disciplined, directed movements. Those adjectives tend to describe conservative groups more than liberal or leftist groups in the United States. In our current media ecosystem, right-wing sources of news and propaganda spread much further and faster than liberal or neutral sources do, according to a rigorous quantitative study of communication-network patterns by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Internet platforms are demonstrably not silencing conservative ideas. If anything, the opposite is true.
So why do conservatives keep lying? Well, for one, to make sure that they retain this advantage:
First, conservatives are working the refs. If conservatives put media executives on their heels, constantly defending themselves or excusing themselves or apologizing for misunderstandings, then these companies are likely to bend toward conservatives out of fear or just exhaustion. This strategy has succeeded before. The liberal-media critic Eric Alterman has argued that such campaigns in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in mainstream outlets such as The New York Times pushing unjustified right-wing causes like the Whitewater investigation and the invasion of Iraq.
Working the refs is still effective. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter are not wise enough to understand what’s happening. So both Facebook and Twitter have allowed themselves to be worked.
There’s a lot more in that article, but it’s absolutely worth reading. The second article is Stanford’s Daphne Keller’s op-ed in the Washington Post, responding to the ridiculous op-ed the Washington Post published a few weeks ago claiming (totally incorrectly) that Section 230 was based on platforms being neutral. Unlike the author of that piece, Keller is actually an expert on Section 230. We’ve discussed why the neutrality claim is bunk in the past, but it’s good to have another version to point to:
The “neutrality” idea, which has been raised by critics on the left and the right, seems to have gained particular currency among conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has insisted that the law protects only sites that act as “neutral public forums.” Similarly, critics like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have claimed that this immunity is available only to platforms “providing a forum free of political censorship.” Platforms that are not “neutral,” Hawley says, face the same legal responsibilities as a publisher like The Washington Post.
That’s not what the law says. If it did, no one would like the results.
CDA 230 isn’t about neutrality. In fact, it explicitly encourages platforms to moderate and remove “offensive” user content. That leaves platform operators and users free to choose between the free-for-all on sites like 8chan and the tamer fare on sites like Pinterest.
Importantly, Keller highlights that it is reasonable to question how the big platforms handle moderation, but targeting Section 230 will make almost every problem worse. As our own Cathy Gellis has explained in the past, Section 230 is uniquely designed to balance a competing set of interests, encouraging the most “good” content on a platform, while limiting the “bad” content. As Keller points out, while people on both sides of the aisle seem to be targeting Section 230 for opposite reasons, they’ll both be disappointed by the results:
Requiring platforms to address these concerns by carrying everything the law permits won’t solve our problems, though. After all, platform users and policymakers of all political stripes often call for platforms to take down more content — including speech that is legal under the First Amendment. That category can include Holocaust denial, bullying, anti-vaccine material and encouragement of teen suicide.
If platforms with insufficiently neutral policies were “legally responsible for all the content they publish,” as some critics have proposed, no one would like that either. A platform held to the legal standards of publishers like The Washington Post would have to vet everything users post before the public could see it. Users would have to wait while lawyers decide if its political opinions or cat videos break the law. If the lawyers thought any speech exposed the platform to liability, or even the expense of litigating groundless claims, they wouldn’t let the content be shared.
The drafters of CDA 230 recognized this problem. They created a law that let the wide array of Internet intermediaries shape their own policies, without facing the binary choice between becoming traditional publishers or remaining entirely passive.
The final piece is a recent one from Reason, highlighting just how ridiculous it is that both Republicans and Democrats are attacking Section 230.
Widely misunderstood and widely misinterpreted, often by those with political ambitions and agendas, Section 230 is, at its core, about making the internet safe for both innovation and individual free speech. It is the internet’s First Amendment—possibly better. And it is increasingly threatened by the illiberal right and the regressive left, both of which are now arguing that Section 230 gives tech industry giants unfair legal protection while enabling political bias and offensive speech.
Ending or amending Section 230 wouldn’t make life difficult just for Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of today’s biggest online platforms. Eroding the law would seriously jeopardize free speech for everyone, particularly marginalized groups whose ideas don’t sit easily with the mainstream. It would almost certainly kill upstarts trying to compete with entrenched tech giants. And it would set dangerous precedents, with ripple effects that extend to economic and cultural areas in the U.S. and around the world.
I’m sure this won’t end the nonsense people continue to spew over these laws. Indeed, responding to the Atlantic piece about his own lies about “anti-conservative bias,” Senator Ted Cruz whined that “lefty journos ignore facts,” while never actually responding to any of the actual facts he ignores. He claimed that the article’s claim that he “suspended that habit of evidentiary discrimination” because he’s held a couple hearings on “Big Tech bias & censorship.” But that’s misleading claptrap in its own right. Both of the hearings Cruz held were not about gathering evidence. They were performative nonsense, in which he promoted falsehoods about bias and the law.
There are reasonable debates to be held about the power of big internet companies — but they’re not currently being held. Instead, we’re getting pure propaganda and nonsense. Don’t fall for it.