Everybody in politics hates how social media works

By Neil Chilson

Published:

But that doesn’t mean platforms are biased

This is the second installment in a series, find the first here.

We hear a lot about “censorship” by online platforms. A certain vocal segment of right-of-center politicians and commentators regularly accuse Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms of bias against Republicans. Indeed, the Trump Administration recently issued an executive order to determine whether the federal government should maintain certain liability protections for online platforms because of the perception that social-media companies discriminate against conservative speech.

However, social-media companies face complaints of censorship from a diverse array of politicians and speakers on the left and the right. Conservatives might be shocked to hear that activists on the left regularly accuse these platforms of rampant bias in favor of right-of-center speakers. It’s only a bit oversimplified to summarize right-of-center concerns as “platforms take down too much of our content” and left-of-center concerns as “platforms don’t take down enough right-of-center content.” The fact of the matter is that large platforms cannot make everyone happy when they moderate content.

Conservative leaders think platforms are biased against them

Many pundits, politicians, and individuals generally aligned with the Republican Party believe that online platforms suppress conservative speech online. Republican senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, for example, assert that online-platform companies prevent conservatives from expressing and spreading their views. In a petition to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Cruz and Hawley complain that “never before in this country have so few people controlled so much speech” and demand that the agency should investigate tech companies’ business and moderation practices. Other prominent Republicans, including President Donald Trump, media host Laura Ingraham, and campus antisocialism provocateur Charlie Kirk, contend that the platform companies’ employees and policies are biased against conservative viewpoints.

They point to incidents like the suspension of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Twitter account or leaked internal emails at Google that suggest Google employees have strong liberal — or rather, anticonservative — leanings. Pew Research Center surveys also indicate that individuals aligned with conservative ideologies believe that social media companies favor liberal ideas over conservative views.

Conservative groups and individuals also criticize online platforms for relying on left-leaning organizations to help them set policies for their services. For example, Amazon relies on the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a progressive public-interest advocacy and legal organization, to prevent charities from participating in AmazonSmile, its charitable contribution program. When the SPLC labeled the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a religious liberty law firm, a “hate group,” Amazon did not allow individuals to donate to ADF through its online platform.

Facebook recently released a detailed report compiled on its behalf by a law firm that catalogs the bias concerns of 133 conservative organizations, individuals, and lawmakers.

Liberal leaders think platforms are biased against them

But concerns about online speech are a rare opportunity for bipartisanship today. Left-leaning organizations and individuals also worry about platforms’ roles in speech. Some left-of-center groups argue that the platforms favor and protect controversial right-wing views while deleting or disfavoring controversial left-wing views. See Elijah Cone’s article, Facebook Is the World’s Biggest Right-Wing Media Company, which compares’ takedowns of conservative content versus their own or aligned content and accuse the platforms of uneven moderation actions. Others claim that Facebook discriminates against racial minorities, alleging that content moderation by online platforms disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities. For example, some argue that Facebook’s rules protect white people more than minorities, noting that the company allowed a congressman to advocate the murder of “extremist Muslims,” yet it deactivated a Black Lives Matter activist’s account for calling white people racist. Other groups, including Palestinian media outlets and activist organizations working in conflict regions, have received moderation warnings or account deactivations based on Facebook’s content policies. Facebook did remove posts or block users in some of these cases. However, the company later acknowledged that many of these issues reflected inappropriate applications of moderation rules or moderators’ lack of knowledge.

These and many other examples of moderation decisions against left-of-center voices are not well known to right-of-center audiences, exacerbating the perception that all moderation decisions are against right-of-center voices. But the social media platforms are heavily criticized by progressive and left-of-center voices. Indeed, Facebook is currently facing a boycott by hundreds of advertisers who themselves have been pressured by advocacy groups upset over Facebook’s treatment of “toxic speech and misinformation.” Facebook’s own just-released independently-conducted civil rights review criticized the company for an inadequate approach to dealing with voter suppression, hate speech, and algorithmic bias.

Both are concerned about the power of these companies.

Many on the political left want social media companies to regulate right-of-center messages shared on social media platforms. But they often share conservatives’ concerns about the influence and power of large social media platforms over users’ ability to express themselves. Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, protests thus: “The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark [Zuckerberg]’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize, and even censor the conversations of two billion people.” Zephyr Teachout and Lina Khan claim that corporations can exert greater political influence due to their large size and permissive reforms in campaign finance laws. Separately, Teachout has argued that online platforms, especially social media companies, reduce the number of local newspapers and “really good news” sources and enable the spread of propaganda. Larry Kramer, a left-of-center constitutional law scholar, likewise frets that social media platforms make it too easy for “the really awful information” to reach the general public.

And it isn’t just academics and advocates raising these concerns on the left. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has attacked social media companies for wielding too much influence and has retrospectively criticized mergers between online platforms like Instagram and Facebook as harmful to competition and society. She has argued that the large size of social media companies enables them to censor speech and spread lies and misinformation. After Facebook removed several of her campaign ads last March, Warren tweeted:

Demonstrating the bipartisan nature of these concerns, Republican Senator Ted Cruz retweeted Warren for what he said was the “first time,” adding “she’s right — Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech.”

But conflicting visions makes a direct resolution difficult

So the loudest voices on each side hate how social media works. But by now, it should be clear that this seeming bipartisanship is only skin deep. Scratch the surface, and it is easy to see how much disagreement there is here. These firebrands on the right and the left agree that platforms aren’t giving them what they want. But what they want are diametrically opposed things.

While this might seem like a hopeless situation, understanding the tug of war that is going on over how platforms moderate content is the only way forward. The conflict isn’t between the right and social media companies, or between the left and social media companies. The underlying dispute is between firebrands on the right and left, both of whom want tools that favor their speech.

Because neither side can figure out how to directly defeat their ideological opponents, both are reaching for indirect means that disguise the conflict. In the rest of this series, we’ll discuss how politicians on both sides of the aisle hope that using antitrust will serve their team more than their opponents’ side — and why they are wrong.

This blog post is the second in a series of posts on the intersection of antitrust and free speech issues on online platforms. It is based on a paper by Neil Chilson and Casey Mattox published as part of the Knight Institute’s symposium on Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse. You can read the full paper here and the other symposium contributions here.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.