Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Social Media Regulation: The Rope With Which Conservatives Will Hang Themselves

Well it has happened again; the right is up in arms about social media censorship. This time Twitter refused to advertise for a pro-life group called LiveAction. This culminated into Trump’s social media summit where he floated the idea of regulating social media (like a utility). In a time of censorship hysteria, this call to action seems rational. Besides social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube are unlike any other websites on the web. Like the town squares of old they are where almost all political discourse is conducted. This is where the exchange of ideas and rhetoric happens; it’s really the only way to make your ideas visible. Some have pointed out these sites have a virtual monopoly on political discourse just as AT&T had a monopoly over telecommunications prior to the 1980s. While this may be a fair and reasonable comparison it doesn’t necessarily follow that social media should be regulated like a utility. Unlike telecommunications and utility companies, social media sites offer their services for free, unless you want to pay for ads, and allow users to assume almost any identity they want to and communicate with people outside of their social circle. So while regulation of telecommunications and utility companies might be justified on grounds of consumer protection that rationale doesn’t hold water when it comes to social media; Twitter and Facebook can’t price gouge us or reduce the quality of service we pay for. You are handed the world on a silver platter, you just have to follow the terms of service you agree to prior to signing up. While having terms of service that are ambiguous and selectively interpreted and enforced might be a problem, I am not sure how conservatives plan to regulate social media in a manner that prevents censorship and makes enforcement fair. In fact, experience teaches us that the exact opposite occurs. There are no examples of any countries regulating and monitoring social media to prevent censorship, but there are plenty of examples of, such as in China and throughout the EU, countries adopting measures to restrict speech on social media. This idea also seems to hinge on the naive implicit assumption that the current social media giants wouldn’t have any input on the new rules. Of course, any industry that is being regulated is going to have some input on the rules. The same conservatives who think it’s ok for legislative influence to be bought and sold to the highest bidder seem to be unaware that Twitter and other social media giants have more lobbying power than any grassroots movement to protect free speech could ever muster. Between 2017 and 2018 Twitter spent about $1.65 million on lobbying efforts, with the bulk of it coming in 2018. Almost all of their lobbyists have held federal jobs. Facebook spent $12.6 million on lobbying efforts and, just like Twitter, almost all of their lobbyists are former federal employees. Alphabet Inc, which spent almost $22 million on lobbying in 2018, alone could crush any legislative effort to force social media platforms to allow controversial and unpopular political opinions. Just imagine how hopeless the situation would be if Alphabet Inc, Facebook, and Twitter combined forces. In this case, social media regulation would more than likely just make Twitter’s terms of service binding on all current and future platforms and entrench them as the default platform. Any advantage that future social media platforms might have, such as being open to more controversial views, would be erased and make them no longer worthwhile endeavors. Conservatives on Twitter would end up in the same position they started out, although this time they would have nowhere else to go, giving Twitter even more power to control political discourse.

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