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Ignoring the fact that almost every media outlet in the United States gave significant coverage to President Trump and his surrogates to share misinformation about election fraud, a number of the tech industry’s perennial critics, including prominent Democrats, have accused social media companies of direct responsibility for the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol last week. For example, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) argued that social media companies “bear major responsibility for ignoring repeated red flags and demands for fixes.” The problem, as explained in the immediate aftermath by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), is that “Congress was attacked yesterday by a mob that was radicalized in an echo chamber that Facebook and other big platforms created.”
While virtually all major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, and Twitch, have since banned President Trump because of his involvement in inciting the violence at the Capitol, and have labeled prior claims about election fraud as disputed or untrue, a number of long-time critics of these companies have said it is too little, too late. For example, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) did not mince words when he warned social media companies that Congress is going to “come back with a vengeance.”
Reflecting the conventional wisdom of the left, the Boston Globe editorial board, wrote this past week that “the government must break up the [social media] companies and regulate them to allow for competitive mission-driven platforms to emerge whose motives can be aligned with serving the public good.” Indeed, this call to break up and regulate large social media platforms has been the rallying cry from many Democrats over the past year despite no evidence, or even logic, for how this would alter how people use social media.
Last year the House Democrats released an extensive report outlining their proposals for increasing competition among large tech companies. One of the primary ideas for social networks was to require interoperability. As the report stated, “An interoperability requirement would allow competing social networking platforms to interconnect with dominant firms to ensure that users can communicate across services.” In other words, large platforms like Twitter would have to allow startups like Parler to post messages that show up on Twitter too.
Indeed this same recommendation appeared in legislation as part of the Augmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Act, a bipartisan bill that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) co-sponsored with Sen. Blumenthal. This bill would require social media platforms to build an interface “to facilitate and maintain technically compatible, interoperable communications with a user of a competing communications provider.”
Unfortunately, this type of interoperability requirement would make it virtually impossible to effectively deplatform misbehaving users, something most Democrats have argued platforms should be doing more frequently. While some now argue the problem is that social media platforms have too much power, there has been scant attention given to the unintended consequences of reversing this situation. In a world where the government requires large social media companies to provide interoperability with all competing platforms, there would no longer be a means to effectively deplatform users, as banned users could always hop onto a new service. Kicking someone off Twitter would be meaningless if they could post those same messages to Twitter users from Parler.
Indeed, this is the reason nobody ever talks about banning someone from email. Even if a particular platform bans an egregious offender, that person might lose their email address, but they can easily establish a new account with a different provider, update their contacts with their new email address, and be back in business in a heartbeat.
Social media is imperfect because it reflects the words and deeds of our society, faults and all. Moreover, in a country with a passionate commitment to free speech, there will continue to be significant disagreement on what should and should not be allowed on mainstream platforms. While social media may amplify some toxic speech, it is ultimately the people who share and promote these ideas, not just online, but in local town halls, on television, in newspapers, and in the halls of Congress, who bear most of the responsibility and also have the power to change course. Indeed, when elected officials are freely churning out false information, it is unreasonable to expect social media companies to unilaterally attempt to hide these ideas and create a bubble in which they do not exist.
A Democratic-led Congress will certainly be considering steps to regulate social media, and many critics in the media will likely cheer them on. But they should be careful of the unintended consequences of some of their proposed remedies.
Blaming social media companies is much easier than political parties and the media turning the spotlight on themselves and taking accountability for the role they have played in promoting populist ideas and rhetoric and in weaponizing digital mobs to their own advantage. But doing this will be necessary because to end the cycle of growing political anger on both the left and the right and decrease political polarization and divisiveness, we need to look beyond social media.