Alleged inaccuracies in claims about mail-in voting are the impetus, along with a Trump retweet of a conspiracy theory regarding a congressional staffer’s death a decade ago.
Trump’s response, also keeping the news media buzzing, is yet another tweet, alleging that “Social Media Platforms totally silence conservative voices.” He warned that “We will strongly regulate, or close them down before we can ever allow this to happen.”
Trump’s clashes with big tech and their erupting into public view is far, far from new. My colleague Jessica Melugin just wrote last week about a potential presidental panel “to investigate charges of discrimination against right-leaning users and content by social media platforms.”
In the background though, the weirdness of all this is that it isn’t just Trump that wants regulation. Many on the left agree on the concept of regulation of social media search and speech. Each camp, of course, has its own reasons.
Trump’s own calls for government intervention in the media space go back at least to his presidential campaign phase.
Trump has tweeted extensively (ironically, that) for years about media “censorship” — and not just social media censorship. At one point candidate Trump threatened NBC’s broadcast license, and in a 2016 campaign rally proclaimed that, “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” President Trump later reaffirmed that sentiment at a January 2018 cabinet meeting, telling reporters, “We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws.” Then in June 2018 the president called for a consumer boycott of AT&T T +0.7% over CNN’s coverage of himself.
When Trump’s economic adviser Lawrence Kudlow was asked in the summer of 2018 about the administration’s openness to regulating Google GOOGL -2.2% search results, he responded, “We’ll let you know. … We’re taking a look at it.”
Google, like all social media firms, is a private entity, and the search results it offers up represent free speech of Google’s own. Facebook, Google, Twitter and other private platforms cannot censor. Only governments, through actions including ones like what Trump is proposing, can censor.
On we go. Asked at a November 7, 2018, press conference if he would regulate social media companies, Trump acknowledged the problems that would entail but didn’t back down:
“[W]hen you start regulating, a lot of bad things can happen,” he said. Nonetheless, the president continued, “I would do that. Yeah. I would look at that very seriously. I think it’s a serious problem. At the same time, you start getting into speech; that’s a very dangerous problem. That could be the beginning. So it’s very dangerous. … But I would certainly talk to the Democrats if they want to do that. And I think they do want to do that.”
That would be a curious form of bipartisanship, to say the least.
It continued in 2019. In the wake of a June Fox Business interview Trump attacked tech giants like Google and Facebook for “bias… toward Democrats” and “hatred” for Republicans and said legislation may be warranted, and that they “should be sued.” Interestingly, alongside these calls for regulation of speech in June 2019 Trump said he was “all in” for a “no brainer” constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Steve Daines (R- MT) to ban burning of the American flag.
In May 2019 the administration went so far as to set up a tattletale “Tech Bias Story Sharing Tool” (since discontinued) for members of the public to self-report to the White House allegations of online bias and censorship, such as account suspension or termination.
The rat-’em-out project was followed by a July 11, 2019 White House “Social Media Summit” featuring a number of right-of-center personalities at which Trump asserted, “we have to do something about what’s happening.” In a Tweet showcasing the event, the president asserted, “Today, I am directing my Administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect the free speech rights of ALL AMERICANS. We hope to see more transparency, more accountability, and more FREEDOM!”
The White House was also, and may still be, considering an executive order to combat alleged anti-conservative social media bias.
More generally, and beyond the speech issues most aggravating President Trump, one finds conservatives in the administration and in Congress seeking to change the regulatory environment of social media, and big tech’s accountability (or lack thereof) for user-generated content.
The problem is that all these campaigns to impose political neutrality on big tech will backfire on conservatives. Where bias now may be real or exaggerated, it is capable of being overcome or sidestepped on a non-depletable Internet that has not seen its last social media enterprise.
Conservatives do not control the apparatus of the Administrative State that would carry out these misbegotten functions of speech regulation. They’ll regret it.