The Trump administration is drafting an executive order to address alleged anti-conservative bias in social media. While details are sketchy, there are huge First Amendment implications to the executive branch telling a private business what it must do regarding expressions of opinion — even if conservatives’ basic assertion had been correct. As it happens, it isn’t. This whole debate grows from a right-wing persecution fantasy.
Politico reports the memo stems from President Donald Trump’s vow last month to confront “censorship” of conservatives by Twitter, Facebook and the like. That allegation is based largely on the platforms’ screening of disinformation and hate speech from InfoWars conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, right-wing extremists Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer, and others. Conservative critics also allege that search-engine results, news feeds and other information generated on the sites are rigged to bury conservative sentiment.
Even if that were happening, this entire crusade — for which Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is the most vocal congressional advocate — is based on fundamentally flawed assertions about what the First Amendment does and doesn’t guarantee.
The amendment prevents government from censoring speech, but private companies like Twitter and Facebook are free to set their own rules. Deciding what opinions to promote or ban from one’s private property (and Twitter and Facebook are private property) is part and parcel of free speech. A governmental edict regulating it is, in itself, a violation of that speech.
The old Fairness Doctrine carved out an exception, requiring equal time for opposing views in television and radio broadcasts, because there’s limited space on government-owned airwaves, justifying a public-service test regarding who should have access. It was conservatives who traditionally opposed the Fairness Doctrine, including President Ronald Reagan, who once vetoed a bill that would have written the administrative policy into law.
In any case, the internet is not government-owned. Hard-right sites are free to spew as much vitriol as they want. Among those spaces is 8chan, the white-nationalist site that hosted the El Paso shooter’s alleged, hate-filled manifesto — echoing some of Trump’s own words on immigration — minutes before the slaughter of 22 people.
There is a case to be made that companies with as much sociopolitical influence as Twitter, Google and Facebook have a societal, if not legal, obligation to try to be evenhanded in how they treat differing views.
And browsing through those sites, you can, in fact, find a wide range of political sentiment — more so, certainly, than on, say, Fox News, which regularly presents conservative propaganda to its millions of viewers. Maybe Trump and Hawley will soon announce an initiative to address that?