Why Is The Republican Party Obsessed With Social Media?
from the emotional-claptrap dept
“In 1970,” observes Edmund Fawcett in his recent survey of political conservatism, “the best predictor of high conservative alignment in voting was a college education.” “Now,” he notes, “it is the reverse.” Many other statistics sing this tune of political realignment. Whereas the counties Al Gore won in the 2000 election accounted for about half the nation’s economic output, for instance, the counties Joe Biden won in 2020 account for more than 70 percent of it. Many observers have tried to capture this shift’s cultural significance. You could say that the Republicans have rejected Apollo for Dionysus. You could conclude that they have embraced Foucault and postmodern philosophy. Or you could sting to the quick, as David Brooks does, and acknowledge that “much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality.”
This political rearrangement has been helped along by much larger historical forces, among them the decline of social trust, the collapse of Christianity, the erosion of faith in experts and institutions, the flattening of authority structures and information flows, and the accelerating pace of technological change. Put to one side the knotty question whether the benefits of modernity outweigh the costs. No one can deny the size and sweep of liberal capitalist disruption.
Are Republicans grappling with the megatrends reshaping their party, society, and the world? Are the big disruptions sparking big thoughts that lead to big policy proposals? In a word, no. In fact, the party’s leaders have rallied around something remarkably small. Not for them the pursuit of the grand contemporary challenges. Their first thought, it often seems, is for how social media companies treat the extremists, conspiracy theorists, and other fringe characters on their websites. Republican legislators emit plumes of bills on the subject. Rightwing scholars and pundits take a bottomless interest in it (and in how to circumvent the companies’ First Amendment right to moderate content as they see fit). Over and over, Republican politicians say that Big Tech has become “Big Brother,” that Twitter and Facebook pose an “existential threat” to free speech, and that Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are “out to get” conservatives. They say these things so often—they spend so much time saying them, to the exclusion of saying other things about other issues—that their voters can almost be forgiven for thinking them true.
By now people simply assume that disdain for social media firms is a key plank of the GOP platform. Should it be? Actually, that Republicans devote so much energy to denouncing content moderation is exceedingly odd. Not only is the supposed problem trivial; there is arguably, even from the perspective of a conservative, no problem at all. It is doubtful that content moderation harms the Republican Party. Some rightwing commentators all but admit as much. As David Harsanyi, an outspoken critic of Twitter’s and Facebook’s content-moderation practices, sees it, “There is no evidence that regulations, whether enforced by corporate stooges or government itself, make us safer or alter human nature or stop people from believing stupid things.” Which is to say that major social media sites have not stopped, and perhaps cannot stop, abhorrent views, crackpot views, or rightwing populist views from spreading, even thriving, online.
So why the clamor? Because the claim that average people are being silenced by “Silicon Valley oligarchs” is simple. It’s easy to grasp. It lends itself to the perpetual partisan fund drive. Above all, it’s emotional.
The right’s fixation with online speech is, at bottom, about dignity. Your rustic aunt—the one who sneers, “The election was stolen, and there’s nothing you can say to convince me otherwise!”—might be unrefined. She might be stubborn. She might even be a bit batty. But she also feels frustrated, as she struggles in earnest to make sense of a fast-evolving world. And she feels ignored, if not maligned, by journalists and intellectuals who dismiss her as a rube and a bigot. She feels treated unfairly. Whether the treatment is truly unfair is beside the point. “When you tell a large chunk of the country that their voices are not worth hearing,” writes Brooks, “they are going to react badly—and they have.”
Here as elsewhere, though, the GOP cannot square what its voters purport to want with how they so obviously feel. On the one hand, many on the right seek precisely what conservatives, in the traditional sense of the word, have sought since the early nineteenth century: security and stability in the face of innovation and churn. “To ordinary people shaken by a hurricane of social change that nobody yet understands,” says Fawcett, “the hard right promises a longed-for security of life, imagined as a common shelter.” On the other hand, the populist right is brimming with contempt for a system that rejects them. They therefore value their ability to use social media to mock academics, journalists, government officials, and other figures of authority. Theirs is (to return to Fawcett) a “gospel [that] sets itself as at war with a conservatism of prudence and moderation.”
Think of it this way. A party that celebrates the 1950s as a simpler, happier time of community feeling and patriotic elan, but that believes trolls getting exiled to Parler, Gettr, and Gab is among the most pressing problems of our moment, is by definition a neurotic mess. “The unreconciled right,” in Fawcett’s words, “cannot be said to have a coherent, thought-through critique of present-day liberal orthodoxy, let alone a positive conservative orthodoxy.” What it has instead is merely “a powerful set of rhetorical themes,” one of the most prominent of which is the accusation that liberals “stop conservatives from telling the truth about a desolate state of affairs.” Hence Republicans’ hollow obsession with what can and cannot be said on Twitter or Facebook.
Corbin Barthold is internet policy counsel at TechFreedom.