When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently announced that the platform would no longer allow political ads, Washington’s collective head spun toward the company’s chief (and much larger) rival — Facebook — for a reaction and a seemingly continual apology for the company’s real and perceived missteps. The mounting pressure to “rein in” Big Tech seems like the only issue with bipartisan support these days. However, to judge and condemn social media companies as categorically bad for democracy — let alone to pursue knee-jerk legislative plans to handicap and punish them — is wrong.
The left, still smarting from Donald Trump’s stunning victory in 2016, emphasizes the role social media sites — primarily Facebook — play in leaving our democracy susceptible to foreign tampering in elections.
The right, ever ready to decry the persecution of conservative voices, criticizes social media giants for banning right-of-center figures from their platforms. To some conservatives, these bans show tech giants’ undue influence over our public discourse. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, for example, is currently leading the charge for antitrust legislation to break up big social media firms — including Facebook.
Social media companies have certainly made mistakes worth criticizing: failing to anticipate foreign intervention in America’s democratic process; censoring certain people; providing inadequate transparency and protections around users’ personal data; and facilitating the spread of false information that invariably contributes to a decline in trust in our major institutions.
The algorithms of the biggest players favor sensational and bombastic users who play on people’s baser instincts. Yet the moment those same users test the limits of our public discourse, social media platforms are criticized for being the arbiters of what is and is not acceptable.
It’s a mistake to think that the policies of technology companies or from Washington regulators will fix these problems. The problems are much deeper than that, and the solution resides in Americans choosing to reward the producers of good content instead of the bad—the constructive and thoughtful verses the loudest.
As much the pundit class enjoys blaming social media for America’s ills, it is worth remembering that over one-fifth of the world has no access to Facebook or Twitter; the “Great Firewall of China” prevents the entire country from accessing the sites. Social media affords expression in unprecedented ways — which has had many positive and negative outcomes.
Those committed to freedom of speech must recognize that, valuable as it is, the principle is not costless. But, at least historically, we have decided as a nation that the benefits of this freedom outweigh the costs of offensive and harmful speech. But in our divided and violent era, people — even classical liberals — are concluding that costs of offensive and violent speech are too great to bear.
We tend to rapidly adopt new technologies without putting sufficient thought into the consequences of our unalloyed embrace. Our technology-related problems occur because of the unseen consequences of seemingly benign tools.
Free speech is unpopular, especially among young people — a problematic notion, considering the future of this constitutional principle depends on them. In one study, fewer than half of 18- to 21-year-olds agreed that people should be free to voice nonviolent opinions if those opinions are offensive to minorities.This trend highlights the urgency of renewing our country’s commitment to freedom of speech, but also the responsibilities that come with that freedom.
A free society can function without strict governmental restraints only when individuals exercise self-restraint. In the context of our public discourse, civility constitutes this self-restraint.
To address this complicated problem, we must rely on innovation, diversification, decentralization, settled cultural norms and individual discipline. Which is to say, we must rely on ourselves.
Alexandra Hudson is a research fellow for the American Institute for Economic Research who earned her graduate degree from the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar and is working on a book on civility.
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