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This week the seemingly interminable 2020 presidential campaign will (hopefully) be at an end. While it is too soon to predict whether Trump or Biden will prevail on November 3, it is almost certain that social media will be declared the undisputed loser.
If Biden wins, the Republicans will likely allege unfair treatment on social media as a contributing factor in their loss. In the months leading up to the election, social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter have repeatedly flagged, fact-checked, or removed a number of Trump’s posts. They will blame social media for not doing more to be politically neutral.
If Trump wins, the Democrats will likely allege insufficient control of misinformation on social media as a primary cause. False information about coronavirus, candidates, and conspiracies spread faster than social mediasites can take it down. Thus, the Democrats will blame social media for not doing more to address misinformation.
Regardless of the outcome, the losing side will be primed to blame social media for their loss and try to punish them for it over the next four years. Meanwhile, the winning side will likely say they won in spite of a broken social media environment and try to fix the rules to their advantage for the next election cycle.
This hostility will set the stage for Congress and the next administration to come out guns blazing to try to set new rules for social media, and such proposals may find bipartisan appeal. Some will call to “break up Big Tech” based on the mistaken belief that having more and smaller platforms will lead to better national dialogues. Others will demand that social media companies be stripped of their liability protection for third-party content, unless they adhere to new rules on content moderation—rules that would differ by the party in power.
Overall, the impact of such rules would be a major setback for Americans. When social media platforms are turned into political punching bags, they are forced to prioritize the demands of the prevailing political winds rather than the need of their users. In this case, they would likely be forced to significantly limit what the average user posts online to avoid potential violations.
While this might indeed reduce misinformation and punish those perceived as insufficiently politically neutral, it would come at the expense of the vibrancy that makes these platforms attractive to users in the first place. Moreover, it would undermine long-held values on both sides. Conservatives would be turning on their commitments to free markets and individual liberty in favor of increased regulation and government control. And by placing greater restrictions on social media platforms, liberals would be curtailing free speech online, which would be unfortunate because, as the ACLU’s national legal director David Cole explains, the “targets of censorship are typically dissidents, outsiders, the marginalized.”
Win or lose, both parties are likely to target social media following the 2020 elections. Reactionary policies to right perceived wrongs will ultimately hurt major U.S. tech companies, reduce U.S. competitiveness, and hurt U.S. consumers. The questions about fairly and transparently moderating online content that have emerged throughout this election cycle should continue after the votes are counted, but with an eye toward improving consumer welfare, not just the next election.