No Quick Fix for Social Media Bias

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, Sept. 5, 2018.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

After Twitter’s ban of the New York Post’s scoop on Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian payoffs last Wednesday, CEO Jack Dorsey called his staff’s actions “unacceptable.” Ya think? The timing was especially dumb, as he’s set to appear next week, along with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai, before the Senate Commerce Committee. The topic is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social-media platforms from liability as publishers. Mr. Dorsey just gave his adversaries the fuel to burn his tweet house down.

Except Twitter didn’t do anything illegal. Section 230 protects online forums against being sued for user-posted content on their platforms. But these platforms can also apply “community standards” to remove anything they deem objectionable. You and I have First Amendment rights to say whatever we please (without inciting violence), but these platforms are private companies. They can remove or allow what they want.

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That doesn’t mean they should. All rise: The court of public opinion is in session. Sen. Ted Cruz pointed out the hypocrisy of banning the Biden revelations—however questionable or ill-gotten they may be—but allowing the New York Times’s story on Donald Trump’s leaked tax returns or Buzzfeed’s Steele dossier.

So now Twitter—along with Facebook, which didn’t ban the Biden story but said it was “reducing its distribution”—have drawn a murder hornet’s nest of rebuke, mostly calls for rewriting or repealing Section 230. In a dogpile sandwich, it now seems everybody hates the statute that built the latest version of the internet.

Republicans, led by Sen. Josh Hawley, rightly worry about bias against conservative posts. Mr. Hawley has introduced several bills to rewrite Section 230, and he’s probably not done. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested in April that Section 230’s privileges “could be removed.” And forget Chuck Schumer—even comedian Amy Schumer wants to “Amend CDA 230.”

President Trump tweeted “REPEAL SECTION 230.” This may have been a trick to get Kamala Harris, who said of a vaccine, “if Donald Trump tells us to take it, I’m not taking it,” to be for Section 230. Mr. Trump even signed a toothless executive order against online censorship. Joe Biden told the New York Times that Section 230 should be “revoked, immediately.” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that Section 230’s immunities are too broad.

I’ve had my doubts too. After writing a column against Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s proposed wealth taxes, my Twitter feed quickly filled with guillotine animations, including one clip with Alfred Hitchcock. Clever. Even I wanted to sue Twitter.

But no one is thinking through the consequences of mucking with Section 230. It’s like bases being 90 feet apart in baseball—it just works.

First, if we repeal 230, we’ll end up with more censorship. Why? Because if platforms are suddenly liable for everything posted, the knee-jerk reaction will be to take down everything questionable, leaving us with giant receptacles of Baby Shark videos, which would diminish the channels small businesses use to reach customers. Then, say goodbye to competition. There are hundreds of smaller social media competitors that wouldn’t be able to afford the software, let alone the tens of thousands of humans, to take down posts.

There’s no simple way to “fix” Section 230 either. The feds could require nonpartisan, balanced views. But who decides what’s balanced? We’d be back to where we started. Any fix would open a can of worms of special interests, maybe even a new Digital Diction Department staffed by justice warriors deciding which phrases are no longer acceptable, like “master bedroom” or even “preference.” And then the law would get larded with special exceptions. The thinking would be, “Let politicians say what they want, for democracy’s sake, but protesters should also get a pass, depending on their grievances.” It would never end.

The only real solution is transparency—hard to legislate, but not impossible. If you have community standards, I want to see them chiseled in stone. Tell us! All Mark Zuckerberg’s flip flops: He was against restricting any political ads until he was for it, and tolerant of Holocaust deniers until he recently decided to ban them. We need transparency on shadow banning (which Twitter has been caught doing) and other restrictions, like the demonetizing Google did to ZeroHedge. Each banning action, like removing doctors’ Covid advice from YouTube, must come with a specific explanation, else leave the post up. If that’s too hard, they don’t deserve billion-dollar valuations.

The genius of Section 230 is that it is vague. It created a set of rules for the sandbox and then let creativity abound. Sure, if a dog gets into the sandbox, you want to clean it up. (I hear sunshine/transparency is a great disinfectant.) By not being specific and leaving it to the sandbox owner, we’ve allowed the interconnection of billions of people in a planetary network where new ideas—some good, some bad—fly around the globe at the speed of light. Don’t screw that up.

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