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Why Republicans still aren’t serious about social media regulation

Many on the right never seem to quite grasp the irony of using Facebook and Twitter to constantly kvetch about social media censorship. Or maybe they recognize the irony, but just don’t care. Maybe at some level they realize their constant complaining about bias is really just an exercise in absurdist political drama.

This could especially be true of GOP politicians and pundits. Take the uproar over attempts by Facebook and Twitter to limit the spread of a sketchy New York Post article about Hunter Biden. Republicans and other right-wingers were theatrically appalled at an apparent Silicon Valley conspiracy to downplay a potentially explosive story about the son of the current Democratic presidential nominee. Across Facebook and Twitter, Trumpist conservatives were churning out heated hot-takes about the compelling need — now more than ever! — to regulate or break up Facebook and Twitter. As Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri tweeted: “Yeah, sure, @Facebook is lot like a supermarket … except there’s only ONE supermarket in town, and they decide who can and can’t shop. That’s what we call a monopoly.”

To be clear, Hawley was complaining about Facebook’s supposed social media monopoly via another popular social media platform. And there were other platforms he could have chosen, including Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, or even Parler, a Twitter clone specifically meant as a right-wing Twitter alternative. So “monopoly” is a kind of strange word to use in this instance, even if you narrowly define the supposedly monopolized market here as “online social media networks.” Or maybe the relevant market — a key concept in antitrust law — is avian-themed, 280-character microblogging. Yes, Twitter certainly has cornered the market on tweets.

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Then again, perhaps the relevant market is something a lot bigger, such as the market for news dissemination. But there’s no such monopoly there, either. Indeed, Hawley followed that tweet about Facebook censorship by going on the conservative Fox News show Hannity — the highest-rated show in cable news — to complain more about censorship and how the “woke capitalists” of Big Tech want to “run America,” an appearance he later tweeted about.

And while there is at least a plausible case for some antitrust action against Facebook, based around it’s acquisition of Instagram, the fact that some on the right also want to break up tiny Twitter shows the vaporous nature of their arguments. They don’t even try to base these arguments on current antitrust doctrine. Equally unserious are right-wing calls to punish social media companies by stripping Section 230, the important legal shield that protects them and other companies on the internet from the actions of their users and allows them to moderate content. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, tweeted: “Companies like Facebook and Twitter have special protections in something called #Section230. But Big Tech is abusing those protections and choosing to censor Americans with different political views. It is time to #Scrap230 and start over.”

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When politicians keep making the same substantive mistakes on an important issue, it starts to look purposeful. And many Republicans keep getting Section 230 wrong. The provision, found in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, doesn’t say social media companies have to be politically neutral. Nor does it say they have to make a choice between being a platform or a publisher. (Indeed, Section 230 was meant to encourage content moderation.) Nor is Section 230 a special protection just for deep-pocketed tech titans.

Republicans have also been negligent in thinking hard, or perhaps even at all, about what a post-Section 230 internet would look like. Do they really want an internet where companies are so scared of getting sued that New Facebook is little more than photos of kids and pets? Or do they want a world of no moderation where everything is left up? As Section 230 expert Jeff Kosseff, author of The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet, once told me, “I have a five-year-old daughter. If that’s what the internet looks like, she’s going to be using books and pens and papers for the rest of her life.”

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Maybe this lack of seriousness on the right — when combined with a wholly different group of complaints on the left where the call is for more content moderation — is why investors aren’t taking these GOP threats seriously. Shares of Facebook and Twitter are at or near record levels, having recovered from their earlier pandemic plunge. Analyst reports on these stocks don’t typically even make that big a deal about potential regulation or breakup. Maybe if Republicans thought more seriously about technology policy and the complex issue surrounding content moderation, they would. But for now, the GOP focus is on ginning up their base rather than serious governance — or maybe making sure social media thinks twice before moderating GOP-friendly content, whether true or not.