Curing Congress’ Cancel Culture Problem

Recently, former President Barack Obama criticized “cancel culture.” A subset of “call-out culture” (publicly shaming people to hold them accountable), “cancel culture” involves criticizing people on social media and boycotting (“cancelling”) them. It’s become very popular in political circles of all stripes, in no small part because it’s an easy way for people to feel they’re making a difference and being brave without doing any work or taking risks. “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right,” warned President Obama, “then I can sit back and feel good about myself … But that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change.”

Congress has its own version of cancel culture. We see it every time a CEO comes in for a much televised public hearing, followed by absolutely no action beyond members tweeting out video clips. The CEOs look properly uncomfortable and apologetic, promise to do better, and fly back home. If public anger builds over new outrages, Congress simply repeats the same Congressional cancel culture process again: They hold another round of hearings, share another round of video clips on Twitter and Facebook of angry Members severely scolding contrite CEOs, and move on to the next outrage.

Mark Zuckerberg Gets Canceled, And Goes Home.

Fittingly, nothing illustrates the empty ineffectiveness of congressional cancel culture better than the treatment of the most successful social media CEO of all, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. On Oct. 23, Zuckerberg appeared before the House Financial Services Committee for what was supposed to be a hearing on Facebook’s proposed digital currency, “Libra.” It turned into a six-hour call-out fest for members on both sides of the aisle to lambast Zuckerberg for everything from his decision not to fact check direct candidate advertising, to his allowing targeted advertisers to discriminate against communities of color, to Facebook’s failure to detect or prevent Russian manipulation during the 2016 election, and to the generally perceived corrosive effect of Facebook (and social media generally) on society and democracy around the world. Needless to say, Twitter was quickly filled with clips of Members “owning,” “schooling,” or otherwise humiliating Zuckerberg.

Then the hearing ended and Zuckerberg returned to business as usual.

If hearings like these led to actual legislation that outlawed bad behavior or created enforceable rights for consumers, they would be laudable exercises in legislative authority and accountability. But they don’t. Zuckerberg made his first “apology tour” for similar failings in April 2018. Since then, he and other Facebook officials have testified on hearings on a range of topics from how to promote competition in the social media space (where many accuse Facebook of using its dominance to suppress potential rivals or buy them out before they become threats) to Facebook’s repeated failures to honor its privacy commitments to consumers. Yet not a single piece of legislation addressing any of these issues has made it to a floor vote – let alone passed into law.

We Need Real Laws, Not Call-Out Hearings.

Not all members of Congress have sat on their hands. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have introduced a bill to require “interoperability” — enabling users to communicate from one service to another, something many antitrust experts have recommended to increase competition. Meanwhile, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) have introduced the only comprehensive consumer data protection bill in this Congress, although more proposals may be in the works.

Ideally, we would pass a law addressing all the problems associated with digital platforms in a comprehensive way. In the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008, Congress recognized that consumers needed a single agency capable of protecting them from a wide range of unfair and deceptive practices and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Congress should consider passing a “Digital Platform Act” to address concerns about competition, consumer protection, and disinformation in a comprehensive way by creating a single agency to oversee platforms from Amazon to Instagram. But until then, Congress should at least move forward on legislation that addresses the individual pieces of the problem.

Congress needs to give up its addiction to cancel culture and do the hard work of actually finding solutions to platform problems and passing them into law. Sure, it’s fun to bring in high-profile CEOs and call them out with the cameras rolling. But to quote President Obama: “That’s not bringing about change.” A Congress interested in addressing real problems and making actual change would focus on getting bills  passed into law. Granted, a committee mark-up hearing followed by a vote doesn’t have the same press coverage, or blow up social media, like a high-profile CEO bashing. But it does actually make a difference in people’s lives.

Harold Feld is senior vice president of Public Knowledge and author of “The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Break ups, Starfish Problems, and Tech Regulation.”

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