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Facebook Trustbusters Are Motivated by Partisan Politics, Not Concern for the Consumer

By Yaël Ossowski

Channeling the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt and nostalgia for the early 20th century Progressive Era, the latest bad idea being circulated in elite circles is to use the trust-busting power of the federal government to break up the social network Facebook.

The idea has been promoted by the likes of Democratic politicians like senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and also Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz. Even Chris Hughes, an original Facebook co-founder, has hitched his wagon to the idea, as expressed in his now infamous New York Times op-ed.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not dealing with a corporate monopoly akin to Standard Oil, U.S. Steel or even Microsoft. We’re talking about social media websites and services available on the open web.

No one is forced to use these platforms, and are very free and cheaply able to create their own. This is not a monopoly in the literal sense, or even a figurative one.

There are already plenty of competing social networks that people use for a host of different services. Whether it’s Snapchat, Reddit, Pinterest or Twitter, there are plenty of services where people connect with friends and share information. Facebook just happens to have “clued in” to the needs of the greatest numbers of consumers. Does that warrant government intervention? No.

Let’s be clear: the internet is the ultimate playground for consumer choice. Government attempts to intervene and regulate based on political considerations, however, will only restrict consumer choice and deprive us of what we’ve thus far enjoyed.

No doubt, some actions by the company have been egregious and they’ll be rightfully punished. The Federal Trade Commission’s expected $5 billion fine on Facebook because of its mishandling of data and consumer privacy is a good first step.

But the movement calling on federal regulators to use their power to break up the company reeks of partisan politics.

Democrats are incensed that users on the platform may have been persuaded to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election due to an impressive outreach effort by the Trump campaign (not to mention alleged Russian front groups). Republicans, on the other hand, decry Facebook’s liberal-heavy moderation that has specifically targeted conservative pages and posts. Its censoring of a post citing the Declaration of Independence because it was considered “hate speech” is just one example.

But from what we’ve learned from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other tech elites, banning individuals or pages are highly complex decisions made by thousands of moderators who follow an internal set of guidelines, whether at YouTube, Twitter or Facebook. The investigative article published on the Verge about Facebook moderators’ workload and stress while removing bad content from the platform speaks to that.

Despite these follies, the overwhelming majority of users are happy with their profiles. They’re able to connect with friends and family around the world, and share images and posts that spark conversations. Millions of small businesses, artists, and even news websites are dependent on these platforms to make their living.

Using the force of government to break apart businesses because of particular stances or actions they’ve taken, all legal under current law, is highly vindictive and will restrict the ability for ordinary people like myself or millions of other consumers to enjoy the platforms for which we voluntarily signed up.

We should hold these platforms accountable when they make mistakes, but not tip our hand to invite the federal government to determine which sites or platforms we can click on.

The government’s role is not to pick winners and losers. It’s to ensure our rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, as the Declaration of Independence states. Let’s not use temporary partisan politics to determine the fate of online services and platforms from which we all enjoy and benefit.

The Social Media ‘Deplatforming Purge’ Will Only Make the Internet a Seedier Place

At the dawn of the social media revolution, our first instincts were on the money.

Instantaneous communication, blogging and social networks were the ultimate innovations for free speech. Millions of people were given a voice beyond the reach of traditional gatekeepers. It was glorious.

Now that we’ve lived through two decades of this revolution, however, the gatekeepers have returned.

Facebook has banned several controversial account holders from its site and related properties such as Instagram, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, radical black nationalist minister Louis Farrakhan, and a whole host of alt-right commentators.

The company says they’ve been removed as they’re classified as “dangerous individuals and organizations” who “promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology.”

YouTube underwent a similar process in March, shutting down the accounts of hundreds of conservative voices in response to pressure from activists who seek to “deplatform” those with whom they disagree.

In a way, it’s difficult to place blame directly at the feet at the platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They’re only reacting to the feverish outcry of politicians in Washington and the new mantra of social justice that pervades major cities across the nation.

Banning fringe voices from social media networks may be popular among tech and political elites, but it will only further embolden the people with truly dangerous ideas.

The fresh wave of censorship is being led by the reaction to the actions of the deranged terrorist, motivated by very bad ideas, who opened fire on peaceful worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, killing 51 people and leaving 41 injured.

He livestreamed the entire rampage, peppering his deadly killing spree with commentary and phrases found on seedy online chat rooms and websites.

Political leaders in western nations want global regulations on the social media platforms used by the shooter, which you or I use everyday to communicate with our friends and family.

In the rush to prevent another attack, however, we should be warned against any crackdown on social media and Internet freedom. These are the tools of dictatorships and autocracies, not freedom-loving democracies.

But penalizing social media companies and its users for a tragic shooting that took place in real life abrogates responsibility for the individual alleged of this attack, and seeks to curb our entire internet freedom because of one bad actor.

What’s more, trying to play whack-a-mole with bad ideas on the internet in the form of bans or criminal liability will only embolden the seediest of platforms while putting unreasonable expectations on the major platforms. And that leads us to miss the point about this tragedy.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter already employ tens of thousands of moderators around the world to flag and remove content like this, and users share in that responsibility. It will be up to these platforms to address concerns of the global community, and I have no doubt their response will be reasonable.

But on the other hand, this tragedy occurs in the context in which Big Tech is already being vilified for swinging elections, censoring speech of conservatives, and not reacting quickly enough to political demands on which content should be permissible or not.

As such, we are set to hear anti-social media proposals that have very little to do with what happened on that tragic day in Christchurch in idyllic New Zealand.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants the G20 to discuss global penalties for social media firms that allow questionable content. Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among many congressional Republicans, want to use antitrust regulations to break up Facebook.

A recent national poll found that 71 percent of Democratic voters want more regulation of Big Tech companies.

In the wake of a tragedy, we should not succumb to the wishes of the terrorist who perpetuated these attacks. Overreacting and overextending the power of our institutions to further censor and limit online speech would be met with glee by the killer and those who share his worldview. Reactionary policies to shut these voices out so they cannot read or listen to alternative views will only embolden them and make the internet a seedier place.

Many individuals and companies are now fully reliant on social media platforms for connecting with friends, attracting customers or expressing their free speech. They are overwhelmingly a force for good.

Yes, internet subcultures exist. Most of them, by definition, are frequented by very small numbers of people who are marginalized. But clamping down on social media will only radicalize this minority in greater numbers, and maybe lead to more blowback.

Cooler heads must prevail. Social media does more good than harm, and we cannot use the actions of a fraction of a minority to upend the experience for billions of users.

We can use these tools to condemn and prevent extremist ideas and behavior rather than the force of law or outright bans of controversial figures who make convenient targets.

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