The White House Social Media Summit and the Return of ‘Regulation by Raised Eyebrow’

The Trump administration hosted a “Social Media Summit” at the White House yesterday that featured President Trump and various supporters lambasting online platforms for supposed “bias” in terms of who or what they host. The president and the invited guests reiterated claims that online platforms target and censor conservative voices.

Ironically, the president is no stranger to “blocking” allegations. He was forced to engage in a little “deplatforming” himself when he disinvited one controversial character from the event. The same week, a court ruled Trump had no right to block Americans from following his Twitter account.

The lesson here is that content moderation and online speech policies are a tricky business, whether you are Facebook, Twitter or even the President of the United States. “Acceptable speech” is a classic eye-of-the-beholder problem, and figuring out what content is acceptable to host (or what followers are unacceptable enough to block) is challenging.

Of course, that doesn’t stop a lot of people from complaining about content hosting and moderation policies. Plenty of conservatives think that much of the online world is out to silence them, especially Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

Despite these beliefs, these sites (and online platforms more generally) have been a great boon to conservative voices. Never before have conservatives had more soapboxes to stand on to have their views heard. The analog era offered them far fewer opportunities, but social media has given them a cornucopia of outlets to post and exchange views. Just one month ago, for example, President Trump tweeted, “The Fake News has never been more dishonest than it is today. Thank goodness we can fight back on Social Media.”

Nonetheless, the White House summit was a way to channel the collective suspicions of conservatives who feel that right-of-center content is getting blocked or deplatformed more aggressively than left-leaning speakers and viewpoints.

There is no comprehensive evidence of targeted systemic suppression, but it has not stopped the President and others from suggesting an anti-conservative conspiracy is afoot. It’s a surprisingly common belief. One poll finds that 59 percent of registered voters believe that “social media bias” is a problem. It’s not partisan, either: a majority of both parties agree. A plurality supports government regulation to force “political neutrality.”

Nevertheless, the government cannot directly tell platforms how to moderate content because of the First Amendment. The President and other conservatives are tapping another approach: indirect censorship through both subtle and direct threats.

This is an old playbook that goes by many different names: “jawboning,” “administrative arm-twisting,” “agency threats,” and “regulation by raised eyebrow.” These were the names given to broadcast-era efforts to pressure old radio and TV outlets to bring their programming choices in line with the desires of politicians and bureaucrats.

For example, in the past, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leaders often made speeches at National Association of Broadcasters conventions and used the opportunity to pressure networks to alter their content in some fashion. Sometimes threatening letters would be sent from the FCC to networks threating license revocation, fines, or some other form of regulation if they didn’t bend to the demands of bureaucrats or congressional lawmakers, who wanted the agency to “crack down” on programming choices they did not like. Later, in the 1980s, lawmakers held hearings pressuring record labels to self-censor content, and in the 1990s, Congress did the same for video games they disliked.

This is largely the same playbook Trump and other conservatives are using today for social media, except that it is even worse because today’s efforts are aimed at enforcing ideological balance. At the Summit, Trump said he would be directing his administration to explore all options for social media oversight and regulation, and will be demanding that a big group of tech companies come to the White House soon to account for their content policies.

Meanwhile, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) has already proposed a bill that would strip platforms of liability protections unless they moderate content in an acceptable way (i.e., in a more conservative direction). Platforms would need to submit their internal moderation policies to bi-annual Federal Trade Commission auditing. If they don’t pass muster, the platform could lose their liability protections, making them more susceptible to lawsuits and regulation.

Speaking of the FTC, many would like to exploit the federal competition cop’s antitrust powers to bring their ideological nemeses to heel. Anti-bigness leftists today find an ally in anti-tech conservatives who want to punish Silicon Valley for its speech policies. We can expect this issue to crop up during next week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on antitrust enforcement and technology companies.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently proposed flexing antitrust muscle against companies like Facebook and Google. He has stated that the companies are “larger than AT&T was when it was broken up under the antitrust laws. . . [i]f they’re behaving like Big Brother and censoring political speech, I think that raises very serious legal questions that I expect to see a whole lot more scrutiny devoted to.”

Whatever happened to market competition? Conservatives have been influential in ending bad proposals to politicize markets in the past. They were instrumental in defeating the “Fairness Doctrine,” which was a thinly-veiled attempt to stifle conservative-dominant talk radio. And right-leaning legal theorists developed the economics-grounded consumer welfare standard which guides antitrust actions today. (Not all of the right have succumbed to the siren song of internet regulation: many right-of-center groups released a letter supporting strong online liability protections yesterday.)

But the pendulum can quickly swing, as conservatives should know too well. Politicizing content moderation today may help one’s follower count for a while. But tomorrow the iron glove could be on the left hand, and conservative voices could just as easily be harassed or regulated. As Brent Skorup and Michael Kotrous pointed out in USA Today, “Authorizing elected officials and political appointees to determine the nature of open discourse eventually chills the exercise of free speech and empowers the already powerful.”

Platforms must moderate a digital ocean of content they receive each day. Plenty of mistakes are to be expected; indeed, the chorus from the left complains that platforms do not censor enough. Introducing the hammy fist of the government increases the risk of overreaction in either direction. What’s worse, it’s even harder to correct such state-directed “improvements.”

The unglamorous reality is that there is no dazzling solution to the problem of content moderation. Platforms do the best they can, and they are generally getting better. Government involvement would only inflame tensions and likely violate free speech rights. We’ll muddle through, just as we have before. And one day, we’ll find that we’ve forgotten what all the fuss was about anyway.

Photo credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong