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Breaking up Big Tech won’t help free speech

Trump’s Twitter ban has brought ire to Big Tech. But meddling with companies may make the problem worse.

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Associated Press

It was the ban heard ’round the world. When President Donald Trump got the boot — for good — from Twitter, his supporters and detractors alike saw one of his primary means of communicating with the public dissipate like a vapor. And even though the backlash was predictable, it was still overwhelming — panic over the idea of restricted free speech reached a fever pitch. Calls for heavy regulation of social media corporations sprang anew. 

To be sure, there are real concerns over media companies stifling voices they disagree with. Cultural censorship has infected our politics. Nevertheless, if the government meddles with Silicon Valley, the cure might end up being worse than the disease.

Conservatives’ central claim is that tech companies have institutional bias that renders them poor gatekeepers for news and political influence. In the eyes of many right-wing users, Twitter and Facebook favor mainstream media outlets — an idea bolstered by anecdotal evidence of Twitter warnings and censorship. None of this was made better by the news that Parler, a Twitter alternative, is under siege for refusing to censor its users. 

Conservatives are rightfully concerned about celebrities and ordinary citizens getting “canceled” or deplatformed. However, asking the government to mandate that certain political positions be allowed online will not change the culture of intolerance. In fact, it will likely make the entire situation worse. 

Regulating social media platforms is not a new idea. Politicians on the left, like Elizabeth Warren, have pushed to classify social media companies as publishers. Leftists have argued for years that Big Tech firms don’t crack down enough on hate speech, right-wing extremists and misinformation. 

Politicians looking to control media platforms do not always have pure motives. The CEOs of Amazon, Facebook and Twitter have been called before Congress to defend their actions. In those hearings, Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questioned the CEO of Twitter about a satire page that could “affect (his) ability to get reelected.” Steve King, R-Iowa, asked why Google allowed a specific negative ad about him to appear on an app. 

Similarly, In a recent hearing, Chris Coons, D-Del., criticized Twitter for not censoring users he claimed were distributing “misinformation” about climate change. The Obama administration battled with Fox News over their coverage of his administration and his communications director once said they were “undertaking a war” against the network. The power to target or influence media outlets should not be given to the incoming Biden administration, or any president.

At best, regulating Big Tech will lead to petty partisan squabbling about what is, and is not, acceptable speech. At worst, it would give politicians the power to pressure media companies into favoring their own personal political interests. Do we really want a society where Joe Biden or Donald Trump have the legal authority to hold social media companies accountable for the content on their platforms?

The root problem of social media censorship is the breakdown of societal trust between the right and the left. Placing social media companies under the watch of Congress will only politicize those platforms even more. Americans simply do not trust Congress. Getting them involved will not lower the political temperature.

Cultural censorship is a genuine problem. But regulating social media won’t fix it. Instead of letting politicians play tug-of-war over Twitter and Facebook, people should take a more active role in guiding the marketplace of ideas by giving financial support and readership to media companies, newspapers and booksellers that hold firm to principles of free expression. Most Americans (87%) believe cancel culture is a problem. We should feel empowered to call out Twitter and Facebook when they act hypocritically. 

Handing Congress the power to regulate social media companies won’t fix anything. Remember, no matter how crushing a Twitter “takedown” is, it won’t really change anyone’s mind, anyway — not even about Donald Trump.

Sean-Michael Pigeon is a contributor to Young Voices and a senior at Yale University studying political science. He has worked in Washington, D.C., on regulation and is currently employed as a research assistant.