Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, testified before Congress in early October about the dastardly doings of her erstwhile employer. She outlined the ways Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has had negative effects on the emotional lives of American teenagers and noted that Facebook is conscious of how it fuels anger and misinformation online.
Haugen had also leaked internal Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal, which published a series of stories about the company’s alleged knowledge of the harmfulness of its products. Facebook’s own engineers were aware that “misinformation, toxicity and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares,” the Journal reported. Haugen called on Congress to do more to stop Facebook, stating, “My fear is that without action, divisive and extremist behaviors we see today are only the beginning.”
There is plenty of room for discussion of how best to regulate Big Tech companies such as Facebook (which also owns WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram). But the relatively newfound disdain on the part of Democrats and the mainstream media when it comes to Facebook’s impact on democracy might not be as civic-minded as their rhetoric suggests.
As a rule, Democrats are always enthusiastic about increasing the power of the regulatory state, particularly, as now, when they control two of the three branches of government. Until recently, however, enough members of their coalition cared about free speech and free expression that sweeping efforts to censor speech were rarely included in their government “reforms.”
Our recent Great Awokening, with its insistence that speech is violence, and that harmful words posted on Twitter or your company’s Slack channel are equivalent to physical assault, has upended that calculation. The mainstream media, which, since the Trump years, have urged the public to assess the integrity of stories not by the evidence or absence of facts in them but by the partisan leanings of those who embrace them, are a major cultural force promoting this reassessment of speech. Democrats have also proven to be amenable to this more restrictive redefinition when it suits them.
Democrats were perfectly happy with Facebook’s heavy-handed interventions when, for example, the company announced earlier this year that it would be “expanding our efforts to remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines and vaccines in general during the pandemic,” including any claims that “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.” This was done to suppress efforts to explore the possibility that the virus might have accidentally escaped from a laboratory in China, because Democrats and their allies in the media and the Biden administration believed that to be little more than a right-wing conspiracy theory. Tech platforms’ suppression of the New York Post’s stories about Joe Biden’s son Hunter and his laptop computers followed a similar logic.
By May, however, Facebook reversed itself on the lab-leak story—not because the evidence of such a leak had changed, but because mainstream-media opinion about it had shifted to allow for the possibility that such a leak might have occurred, and because the Biden administration was now raising it as a possibility. As the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board noted at the time, “as long as Democratic opinion sneered at the lab-leak theory, Facebook dutifully controlled it.” But when the evidence became too compelling to ignore, “Facebook acted in lockstep with the government.”
It’s also difficult to take at face value Democrats’ current complaints about Facebook’s impact on elections and democracy. Their sudden change of heart came only after Donald Trump won the 2016 election. It was completely absent when Barack Obama successfully used the platform (and user data) to win election and reelection; indeed, the use of Facebook algorithms was portrayed in hundreds of stories as a political masterstroke. Hillary Clinton’s stated problem with Facebook also came only after her defeat; Clinton, who received a $20 million campaign donation from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, now calls Mark Zuckerberg “authoritarian” and “Trumpian.”
Despite the recent harrumphing from Democrats, and Biden’s appointment of a few antitrust advocates in key positions, Big Tech remains firmly ensconced in the Democratic coalition. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier in the year, employees of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook “were the five largest sources of money for Mr. Biden’s campaign and joint fundraising committees among those identifying corporate employers.”
As well, mainstream media outlets are hardly capable of acting as objective reporters on the goings-on at Big Tech platforms. They are direct competitors with them for the only commodity that matters in the information economy: the attention of users. In some cases, such as that of the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, they both report on and are owned by competing technology companies.
Legacy media’s loss of readers to digital platforms is an old story, but these negative revelations about Facebook give it a new twist. They and their Democratic allies might rail against the platforms themselves, but if you look closely at the solutions they are proposing, it’s clear they sense an opportunity to bend the platforms further to their political will, rather than destroy them.
If Democrats can regulate the ability of tech platforms to suppress speech and expression deemed to be misinformation, then right-of-center ideas that are plausible but not popular among the Big Tech/mainstream-media/Democratic Party elite can nevertheless be actively suppressed. This would never be viewed as censorship, of course, but rather would be touted with the kind of bureaucratic doublespeak Facebook used when banning the lab-leak stories—as the removal of “false claims” and “misinformation” to promote a healthy information ecosystem.
One need not love Facebook or other Big Tech platforms to see the potential harm: Pressured by Congress and threatened with further regulation, Facebook and other platforms could invoke ever-shifting definitions of danger to limit the reach of views that the left dislikes.
In July, as part of a series on “Untangling Disinformation,” National Public Radio devoted a lengthy segment to Ben Shapiro and his Daily Wire. NPR noted that, on Facebook, Shapiro vastly outperforms legacy-media outlets such as the Washington Post and couldn’t resist deriding the stories on his site as mere “conservative clickbait.”
NPR had to concede that “articles The Daily Wire publishes don’t normally include falsehoods,” but it cited experts who tut-tutted that the site didn’t provide enough “context” for readers. But the crux of NPR’s dislike of Shapiro could be found in this telling sentence: “There has been no indication that Facebook views The Daily Wire’s engagement success to be a problem.”
The mainstream media and its Democratic allies clearly do. According to this new line of reasoning, those terrible people who enjoy hot takes from Ben Shapiro are no longer merely the political opposition. They are undermining democracy, and, by implication, their right to free expression should be interfered with. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, who once ran a newsroom in Buffalo, recently argued with a straight face that “a problem that threatens the underpinnings of our civil society calls for a radical solution: A new federal agency focused on the digital economy.”
This astounding call should be considered in light of recent efforts to suppress speech and impose wokeness. Anti-racism profiteer Ibram X. Kendi has called for passage of a constitutional amendment that would establish a Department of Anti-Racism. It would “be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas” and “be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas,” as he wrote in Politico.
Our use of Facebook and other Big Tech platforms clearly does cause real harm, both at an individual and social level. But it also offers a tantalizing amount of power to the political faction that can figure out how to use these platforms to muzzle their political opponents. Right now, that power rests in the hands of the Democratic Party—and they love nothing more than using governmental power.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.