Once the so-called Facebook whistleblower revealed her identity and story, it was only a matter of time before the public imagination of one of the largest social networking sites would go off the rails.
What Frances Haugen released to the Wall Street Journal in her initial leaks, which it dubbed the “Facebook Files ,” detailed how Facebook had made decisions on which accounts to censor, survey data on Instagram use among teens, and the status of the civic integrity team tasked with countering misinformation around political topics.
Many of the revelations are fascinating, and some damning, but they point to a company bombarded with external and internal demands to censor accounts and pages that spread “misinformation” and “hateful” content. Who determines what that content is, and what classifies as such, is another point.
In the days since, Haugen has become a hero to critics of the social media giant on both the Right and the Left, animating these arguments before a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection on Tuesday.
It created the perfect theater for Washington lawmakers and media outlets, elevating conjecture, hyperbole, and feverish contempt for an online platform used by billions of users.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats are united in confronting Facebook, though they are animated by different reasons. Generally, Democrats say the platform does not censor enough content and want it to do more, evoking the “interference” in President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. Republicans, on the other hand, believe the censorship is pointed in the wrong direction, often targeting conservative content creators, and would like to see more even-handedness.
“Facebook has caused and aggravated a lot of pain and profited off the spreading of disinformation, misinformation, and sowing hate,” said committee chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who days before received ridicule for asking Instagram to ban the “finsta” program. (Finstas are fake Instagram accounts created by teenagers to avoid the prying eyes of parents.)
Facebook’s mistakes, especially when it comes to content moderation, are vast. I have joined countless others in pointing out the troubling examples of censorship that are all too often politically motivated. Considering it is a Silicon Valley firm staffed with tens of thousands of employees who likely lean left, it is not surprising.
But the incentive to censor content exists because of the huffing and puffing in Congress, whistleblowers like Haugen, and media pressure to conform to a narrow version of online free speech that has no parallel elsewhere.
Whether it is through the lens of antitrust, to break apart Facebook’s various divisions such as Instagram and WhatsApp, or by reforming Section 230 to make firms liable for all speech on their platforms, it is clear that heavy-handed social media regulation will have the greatest impact on users and generally make Facebook unbearable.
As much as some might like to castigate the unicorn start-up with tens of thousands of employees and a hefty stock price, it derives its power and influence as a platform for billions of individuals looking for connections.
A number of the posts on Facebook may be atrocious or wrong, and they deserved to be called out by those who see them. But in free societies, we prefer to debate bad ideas rather than relegate them to the darkened reaches of society, where they will only fester and grow unabated.
Expecting or forcing Facebook to ramp up censorship will make the platform a de facto arm of our federal agencies rather than a free platform for connecting with friends and family.
While there are many positive reforms that could be invoked in the wake of the Facebook moment, a national privacy and data law, for example, we know it will be the users of these platforms who will ultimately suffer from misguided regulation.
If we believe in free speech and an open internet, it is our responsibility to advocate sane, smart, and effective rules on innovative technologies, not laws or edicts that only seek to punish and restrict what people can say online. We as users and citizens deserve better.
Originally published here