Congress loudly criticized social media for “allowing” itself to be manipulated by foreign powers to influence America’s 2016 presidential election. This alleged lack of content moderation during the last election cycle earned many sites a reputation as irresponsible media companies who cashed in on the worst of their users’ behavior. Concerns about the impact of social media on society — such as igniting greater division, uncivil behavior and growing misinformation — were largely validated over the last four years. This criticism, made by both Republicans and Democrats, was the spark that ignited the “Techlash” still making its way through Congress.
So, after years of hearings, investigations and admonishments from politicians, social media tried to assure the public that the mistakes made in 2016 would never happen again. Enter Hunter Biden.
Two weeks ago, social media was set ablaze by the New York Post’s story concerning Joe Biden’s son and potential connections to corrupt political activity in Ukraine. The story was passed over by several mainstream media outlets due to concerns about its credibility, but quickly gained steam on social media. Twitter had mere minutes to make one of the most important decisions of its existence — let the story become viral, potentially repeating the mistakes of 2016, or hold the story until confirmation of its veracity and origin?
In an apparent attempt to prevent disinformation and election interference, Twitter prevented its users from sharing a link to the New York Post story detailing the allegations against Hunter Biden. Twitter said it was working to slow the spread of the story on their service. Users that continued to tweet links to the story, including President Donald Trump’s press secretary and campaign team, found themselves locked out of their accounts. The New York Post is still in so-called “Twitter jail” and can’t access its main account.
Shortly thereafter though, the story warped into a discussion of how Twitter responded to users who shared the New York Post article. Without a moment of reflection, many pundits and outlets have foolishly charged down a morally hazardous path of judging other people’s motives.
Republicans are furious and insist that Twitter directly intervened in the election by blocking an important story about the former vice president. While some Democrats supported Twitter’s actions, others felt that the social media site only attracted more attention to a potentially dubious news story.
With all the drama on Capitol Hill about social media, the question seems simple — why would Twitter even get involved? The answer is straightforward. After reflecting on widespread congressional criticism tech companies have faced ever since the 2016 election, Twitter actively did not want to be the story in 2020.
Twitter was doing its best to follow what Congress wanted. After almost four years of incessant condemnation for its alleged role in foreign election interference, could Twitter have really neglected to slow a major but tenuous news story about the Democratic presidential candidate? Had the story turned out to be a Russian or Chinese attempt to influence America’s democratic process, similar to Iran’s efforts that the Federal Bureau of Investigation uncovered last week, Twitter’s future as a respected communications tool would certainly be in doubt.
When Congress tells companies how to operate, then Congress must bear some of the blame when companies scramble to follow Washington’s marching orders.
Leadership requires accountability, not the layering on of more over-caffeinated populism and self-service. Our lawmakers raised the stakes of political content moderation so much that they got in the way of the private sector from doing what it does best, that is, continuously improving in an effort to serve its customers.
The action here should be viewed as a business decision, but in Washington, perversely, everything becomes political. And, ultimately, that is the problem. Congress could lead but it won’t.
Instead, Congress pursues shadow industrial policy via threats and bullying repackaged in populist messages. Laws passed in the 1990s have encouraged social media platforms to try their best to tame the crazy content online. And while Congress has browbeaten an industry into content moderation, Congress still criticizes such efforts to selfishly play politics.
Bartlett Cleland is the executive director at the Innovation Economy Institute.
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