President Donald Trump, along with many conservative activists and media personalities, is convinced Big Tech and the mainstream media is targeting them for censorship.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who spoke at Trump’s social media summit last week, wants to roll back key parts of Section 230 if tech companies don’t enforce their moderation policies in a “politically neutral” way. (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants legal immunity to tech companies from what their users post, within certain parameters. So, tech companies are not liable for what their users do on their platforms.)
Conservatives and liberals decried Hawley’s plan because it essentially gives the government control of online speech, which does not align with historically conservative, democratic or limited government principles.
Now, some Republicans worry the Big Tech censorship issue could split the party going into 2020, damaging their electoral prospects.
Trump’s “Social Media Summit,” hosted at the White House on July 11, featured some 200 conservative content providers. Trump did not invite Facebook, Google or Twitter to the event, instead accusing them of suppressing conservative voices — including his own.
“The establishment and fake media says there’s no censorship on social media, it’s all made up. We know that’s not true. We know they want to shut us down, and we can’t let them,” Hawley said at the summit. “Here’s the deal, Facebook and Google have gotten this special deal from government. If they get to keep their special deal, they need to stop discriminating against conservatives. They ought to abide by the same principles of free speech and First Amendment that our country embraces. I don’t think it’s too much to ask. These tech companies have gotten rich off our information. …They shouldn’t discriminate, they shouldn’t censor, they shouldn’t shut us down.”
Trump complained about how his Twitter audience isn’t growing as fast as it used to, and how he isn’t getting as much engagement.
“Does anyone know what I’m talking about?” he asked the crowd of conservative commentators, who responded in a chorus of enthusiastic yeses. “I used to get great press, I haven’t had a good story in two years,” he said.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have banned or censored many right-leaning individuals or groups for violating their user policies or terms of service over the last year, and many conservatives interpret this as bias toward conservatives.
Most recently, Pinterest banned the pro-life group Live Action for violating its user policy (Live Action often shares graphic photos and videos of abortions), and Facebook and Instagram banned what they called “dangerous individuals,” like the right-wing website InfoWars and its founder Alex Jones (who promoted the conspiracy theories that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 were inside jobs and the Sandy Hook Massacre never happened), as well as conservative commentator and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, who many conservatives don’t consider extremist.
Many free speech advocates — including conservatives — believe there is little evidence that Big Tech targets conservatives specifically. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) collects data on censorship across the internet, and found that social media companies tend to unevenly enforce their policies across the political spectrum (i.e., liberals, especially LGBT people, are also censored or banned).
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) noted in a February hearing that there is only “anecdotal evidence” of potential censorship and no empirical evidence that Big Tech targets conservatives.
According to James Pethokoukis, a writer for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “Right-wing media is doing fine on social media. For instance: They dominate the most popular stories on Facebook, even when those stories are about Democrats like the 2020 presidential candidates. If there is a bias, it’s in favor of viral articles from high-traffic websites.”
In June, YouTube faced a massive backlash from free speech advocates for banning conservative commentator Steven Crowder and for how it handles LGBT and anti-LGBT content on its platform. (According to the LGBT community, YouTube frequently demonetizes them as well as anti-LGBT creators.)
David French, a conservative commentator for National Review, used the incident to warn conservatives against using the government to force social media companies to moderate their platforms in a certain way.
“What conservatives cannot and should not do is use the government to erode freedom for the alleged purpose of saving freedom,” he wrote. “The alleged ‘easy’ solution — the fast fix of federal legislation — is likely blocked by the First Amendment. Moreover, there’s something fundamentally entitled and not-conservative about claiming that you should have government-mandated access on terms you prefer to a platform you didn’t create, that’s maintained by people you oppose, and that you should have that access for free.”
At the same time, French thinks it is troubling that social media companies appear to ban more conservatives than liberals.
“A right-wing speaker says something outrageous and faces consequences, while multiple left-wing speakers seem to spew venom with impunity, including at people who are also ostensibly protected by various social-media anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies,” he wrote.
Carl Szabo, policy counsel for the Big Tech lobbying firm NetChoice, told InsideSources that even though the conservative education organization PragerU complains about being censored for its conservative ideas, YouTube has restricted only 12 percent of PragerU’s videos, while restricting a whopping 71 percent of progressive, socialist-leaning group, the Young Turks. Szabo also said PragerU’s subscriber base continues to grow at an “exponential rate.”
“This is a defining time for conservatives in determining where they truly stand on limited government and free markets,” he said. “Conservatives should stop complaining about victimhood and just start focusing on 2020.”
Aram Sinnreich, chair of communication studies at American University, told InsideSources that the summit speaks to a deeper ideological divide in America.
“What does it even mean to be a conservative in the current political moment? These people believed in separation of powers until they didn’t and state rights until they didn’t,” he said. “Traditionally conservative versus liberal was about [the best way to deliver] on the promise of the Constitution and our shared national interest and a functional democratic state, thriving markets and improved quality of life for everyone in America. Reagan and Carter agreed that was the case and Eisenhower and Kennedy agreed that was the case and Bush and Gore. I think we’ve reached the point where there isn’t any consensus about what the function of government should be in the American context. And that’s where it ceases to be about left and right and it’s about authoritarian populism versus some kind of anti-fascist resistance, which is a totally different vector.”
Trump already suggested he might use the Department of Justice (DOJ) to go after Big Tech for antitrust violations, but just the threat of regulation might be enough to “keep them in line.”
“He’s signaling to the social media world that if they don’t turn a blind eye to the monkey business of 2016 (and promote his interests), then he’s going to punish them economically,” Sinnreich said. “And because they’re public companies, that means they have a fiduciary duty to act in Trump’s interest.”
As conservatives draw battle lines over free speech and what it means to be conservative — and whether that means supporting Trump — Szabo said they’re running out of time if they want another four years in the White House.
“Going into the 2020 election, we should not be seeking out issues that divide our party,” Szabo said. “Amending Section 230 will just create division that we just don’t need.”