Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration is considering forming a panel to investigate charges of discrimination against right-leaning users and content by social media platforms.
There isn’t much proof of systemic bias against the right beyond the anecdotal. To the contrary, it’s been noted that right-leaning Fox News frequently gets more engagement on Facebook than any other publisher and right- and left-leaning pages tend to get a roughly equal amount of engagement. And consider the irony of some on the right complaining about bias against conservatives on social media via Twitter and Facebook.
But the danger of government patrolling content on social media is more than just unneeded; it’s detrimental to property rights and real free speech.
Regulating content on private platforms is an afront to those companies’ property rights. These platforms are not, in fact, the public square. They are the private property of these companies. Conservatives have no more of a “right” to be hosted on them than I do to host a political rally in my neighbor’s house without permission. Free speech is not a right to be imposed upon on the private property of another; one right must necessarily stop at the start of another.
The difference between Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter controlling what appears on their platforms versus the government doing so is analogous to Dick’s Sporting Goods deciding not to sell guns versus the government forbidding gun sales. While conservatives may not like Dick’s decision, no one could seriously argue that the retailer should be forced to carry a product against its will. Similarly, dissatisfaction with content curating by online platforms may be understandable, but coercive government intervention would be a cure worse than the disease.
In fact, the idea of government rules for content is itself a threat to free speech. As it turns out, we’ve run the experiment of mandating fair speech in mass media before and the results were just as troubling then as they would be now. The Kennedy administration and the Democratic National Committee backed the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine and looked on happily as the policy destroyed conservative radio in the late 1960s. While the party affiliations have flipped, the idea itself remains a bad one; we don’t need a Fairness Doctrine for the digital era that results in less speech.
Journalists especially should be vocal about their opposition to government rules for content. It’s very possible that the lines between social media and journalism will continue to blur. Imposing content rules now could mean a threat to free speech and the creep towards state-controlled news later.
Everyone who values property rights, freedom of speech, and the lessons of history should oppose efforts to put government in charge of content online.