Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has introduced legislation seeking to get Facebook, Google and other major social media networks to agree to federal audits — not of their finances or data-protection practices but of their alleged political leanings. Under the measure, the companies would submit to regular government reviews to ensure politically neutral content-removal practices and algorithms, which conservatives claim are currently stacked against them.
Hawley’s idea is both constitutionally chilling and unworkable in our current political climate, where there is little agreement on what “politically neutral” looks like. It is also an extreme and intrusive solution to a problem that exists mostly in the imaginations of conservative ideologues.
Hawley’s misleadingly titled “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” would have the Federal Trade Commission review the companies’ operations every two years to certify that they aren’t engaging in “politically biased moderation.” The issue springs from controversies like the one earlier this year when Facebook banned Milo Yiannopoulos, Laura Loomer, Alex Jones and several other right-wing extremists for spreading hate speech.
The new bill doesn’t technically mandate that Facebook and the rest submit to government control over their content; that would clearly violate the First Amendment. But it seeks to reach the same end by threatening non-cooperating companies with losing their protection under a federal law that prevents them from being sued for libel based on their users’ postings. Without that protection, these platforms couldn’t function.
To keep that protection, the companies would have to show the trade commission that they don’t “moderate information … in a manner that is biased against a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.”
As critics have been quick to point out, Nazism is a political viewpoint, and as such is constitutionally protected. But Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are allowed to (and generally do) block Nazi hate-speech. Notwithstanding the incorrect use of the word “censorship” in the title of Hawley’s bill, this is something the social media companies are perfectly within their rights to do, since they’re private entities and not subject to the First Amendment guarantees required of government agencies.
If you think some corners of social media are angry, hate-filled tar pits right now, just wait until Facebook is afraid to take action against any vile user who can even marginally claim to be expressing a political viewpoint. As one industry attorney put it, Hawley’s bill “creates an internet where content from the KKK would display alongside our family photos and cat videos.”
Anecdotal claims of anti-conservative bias aren’t sufficient to justify designating the federal government as bias police or to prevent companies from enforcing civility on their platforms. There are many genuine issues of concern in the social media world that may merit legislation — privacy, security, fake news — but this conservative persecution fantasy isn’t one of them.