On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., continued its investigation of social media companies’ censorship of messages posted by users, and whether Congress should amend federal law to remove liability protections such media corporations enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Graham hopes to amend Section 230 to incentivize Facebook, Twitter and other media companies to moderate their platforms without bias. “This is about censorship, suppression and the 2020 election,” he said in his opening statement. “Something’s got to give.” He wants the industry to develop a “best practices” model to accomplish that and to help Congress revise the law.
While the 2020 election season witnessed many conservative messages censored by Big Tech, including many of President Donald Trump’s tweets and posts receiving labels and warning statements, Graham noted that social media cannot continue to enjoy its protected status if it acts as a “publisher” exercising editorial control over messages that favor certain types of speech over others.
Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut disagreed that Big Tech’s censorship affected only conservative messages, but agreed that Section 230 needs to be amended, and called for possible antitrust remedies against Big Tech if they don’t reform themselves. He also complained that there should be even more censorship of what he termed “hate speech” on their platforms. “Change is on its way,” he said in his opening statement.
Meanwhile, conservatives on social media are voting with their feet, figuratively speaking, by moving in droves to social media competitors such as Parler, an app similar to Twitter, MeWe, which resembles Facebook, and Rumble, an alternative to YouTube.
In the week following the election, the number of Parler users increased from 4.5 million to 8 million. Parler, founded in 2018, promises more relaxed guidelines as to what messages users can post.
In fact, the top three downloads from the Apple Store in the week following the election were Parler, MeWe, and Newsmax, a news site with a center-right perspective.
Not everyone appreciates the free market competition among social media platforms and news sites, however. CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter, in a segment with CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown recently observed, “People are going more and more into their own echo chambers, more and more into their own bubbles, especially Trump voters.”
“There’s this new social media app called Parler getting a lot of attention, because conservatives are leaving, saying they’re leaving Twitter and Facebook, going off to Parler, because they believe Parler is a safer space for them. What we’re seeing is even more of a bunker mentality in right-wing media. And ultimately that’s not good for the country.”
Brown agreed, and took things a step further.
“No it’s not good, it’s a threat to democracy,” she replied, “that these people are in echo chambers and they’re getting fed a diet of lies, essentially.”
A threat to democracy? Really? CNN’s exalted view of itself, and its cramped view of free speech might be a bigger threat to democracy than people choosing other news sources and social media platforms where they can express themselves without fear of censorship.
Of course, no one is preventing CNN from joining Parler, MeWe or Rumble, if it wants to get its message out. The only problem for CNN on those platforms is that they won’t enjoy the exalted status that Twitter and Facebook’s censorship provides it with now.
The great Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said in his concurring opinion in the 1927 case of Whitney v. California that, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
In other words, more and better speech is the answer to objectionable speech, not censorship. It’s nice to see new social media platforms and media companies succeeding in providing alternatives to the current crop of media and social media giants that have exercised way too much control over what the public is allowed to see, say and hear.
Justice Brandeis would emphatically agree.
Photo from HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS