Grandstanding GOP Senators Continue To Mislead About Social Media Bias, Demand A 'Fairness Doctrine' For The Internet

from the stop-it dept

We've talked for a while about the sheer silliness of (mainly) Republican politicians whining about supposed "anti-conservative bias" on social media platforms. As we've pointed out, the actual evidence hasn't shown any evidence of bias. The random anecdotal examples of badly moderated content have mostly just shown how difficult it is to do content moderation at scale. The "bad" moderation decisions impact lots of folks across the political spectrum -- it's just that some grandstanding Republicans like to engage in confirmation bias (the only actual bias that seems to be occurring here) to suggest the moderation mistakes are politically motivated. We've pointed out multiple times now that crying wolf on this issue is not a good look for conservatives -- on multiple levels.

Beyond the fact that the evidence seems to disprove the claims of bias (oh, and yet another study has shown no evidence of bias), for years these very same Republicans kept attacking the idea of the "fairness doctrine," which was an FCC rule in place for a few decades, demanding "equal representation" of political views on the public airwaves. It hasn't been in place for a while, but for a few years, this same group of Republicans grandstanded about false claims that Democrats were trying to bring it back. And yet, what they seem to be demanding now is the return of the fairness doctrine, but in an even more ridiculous way. Rather than on the public airwaves -- where at the very least there was some legitimate claim to the government being able to set some conditions -- these Senators now seem to want to force private companies to run businesses the way they want them to. What a bunch of hypocrites.

And the largest of the hypocrites is Senator Ted Cruz, who has continued to repeat this myth, holding multiple hearings on the topic, including a new one yesterday, with representatives from Facebook and Twitter in attendance. Someone from Google was supposed to be there but (get this), Ted Cruz rejected the Google witness, likely after discovering that Google was sending a former Ted Cruz staffer, who would have done a nice job debunking his former boss's nonsense. Kinda ironic, in a hearing on platforms supposedly blocking conservatives from speaking, the Senate itself decided to block a conservative from speaking.

Most of the hearing went pretty much as planned, with the usual nonsense. Cruz, once again, misrepresented the nature of Section 230 of the CDA and also made noises about changing it. He also threatened other attacks on social media companies, including antitrust. The big "gotcha" moment that some in the press have picked up on was particularly dumb. Cruz rolled out an anti-abortion quote from Mother Theresa that had been used in an ad on Twitter that was apparently blocked, and demanded that Twitter and Facebook execs answer "is this hate speech?".

That, of course, misses the point massively. As Twitter's representative on the panel, Carlos Monje Jr. noted, the tweet was caught in an automated system review, but that the advertiser behind it remains as an advertiser in good standing on the platform -- and he also noted that advertisements on both sides of the abortion debate had been blocked at times on Twitter, which makes total sense, given the strong emotions and controversy felt around that issue. But the bigger point is trotting out a single example is nonsense. It's grandstanding. As we've discussed time and time again, content moderation is an arena of massive gray space, rather than black and white. There are tons of judgment calls, and much of it depends on what it is the platform is actually trying to accomplish. Some platforms don't want controversial content. Some platforms don't want "hate" speech. But what falls into those categories is an open question and in a free market system (the kind Republicans used to claim they supported), we let the companies decide for themselves.

Thankfully, a bunch of conservative/Republican groups and commentators spoke out against Cruz's nonsense as well. The group Americans for Prosperity put out a statement calling out Cruz's nonsense:

... asking the government to police online speech – either through direct action or by cajoling private firms – sets a dangerous precedent that will undermine essential elements of free speech. Government regulation of digital speech won’t protect free speech. It will only increase the likelihood of government censorship.

“Tech companies have the freedom to run their businesses as they see fit, including setting standards for what user content they do and do not want to host, and Americans have the right to speak through alternative platforms or share their opinions elsewhere.

“Today’s largest tech platforms may have the means to manage the legal risk of administering an online speech code but smaller startups do not, so regulation intended to curtail the influence of large tech companies would only cement it.”

TechFreedom's Berin Szoka didn't mince words either:

“Mind-bogglingly, it’s conservatives who are now leading the charge to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine,” continued Szóka. “Conservatives spent nearly 80 years crusading against government meddling in media. Yet now, they’re trying to subject website operators to essentially the same, hopelessly arbitrary standard of ‘neutrality’ they long opposed. They’ve twisted themselves into ideological pretzels by convincing themselves that Section 230 is some kind of special subsidy to ‘Big Tech’ and that the law has always required neutrality. Both claims are patently false. All websites that host user content need clear legal protections against broad liability for user content. Without such protections, the fear of being sued will shut down the smallest sites — and, ironically, protect Big Tech from competition. But even the biggest sites will do less of the kind of content moderation that makes online communities and services usable. In the end, how they run their services will become subject to political pressure. Sadly, it already is, which seems to be the purpose of conservative fear-mongering on this issue.”

“The anecdotal examples of anti-conservative bias in content moderation just don’t hold up,” concluded Szóka. “Cruz, Graham and other leading Republicans have repeatedly cited bogus examples of conservatives being ‘censored.’ Most exemplary is the brazenly false claim that now Sen. Marsha Blackburn was censored for her pro-life views. In fact, her Senate campaign launch video centered on the defamatory claim that Planned Parenthood was selling baby body parts. Neither this video nor her account were taken down by the major platforms; instead, they simply declined to allow her to pay to promote the video because it violated their terms of service. This isn’t censorship; it’s just ad companies preventing the abuse of their advertising systems. Sadly, the companies involved haven’t had the courage to debunk these claims clearly because of the vast political pressure wielded against them by lawmakers bent on partisan revenge. Their timidity should remind us all that the First Amendment bars bullying media companies just as much as explicit censorship.”

Indeed, during the hearing, Marsha Blackburn brought up the bogus ad controversy, saying: “Should Twitter allow ads that denounce Planned Parenthood for selling baby body parts?” That's a ridiculous question for a sitting Senator to ask. No one in Congress should be determining what ads are allowed or not allowed on any platform. And, again, Twitter did allow Blackburn's video. It just said such an ad violated its policies (which it did, because it was nonsense).

Others have raised this point in the past as well. The Cato Institute last year questioned why Ted Cruz -- a supposed conservative free marketer -- seems so against property rights when it comes to the property rights of internet companies. It's almost as if he's a total hypocrite who believes in government intervention against companies he dislikes, but insists on no government intervention when it's companies he does like. Remember, this is the same Ted Cruz who falsely attacked "net neutrality" as a government takeover of the internet.

And now he's whining that the government needs to force neutrality on the internet.

How can anyone possibly take him seriously?

Filed Under: cda 230, conservative bias, fairness doctrine, grandstanding, section 230, senate, ted cruz

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Apr 2019 @ 12:23pm

    A study by Media Matters is hardly unbiased or conclusive.

    "Media Matters for America. Media Matters for America (MMfA) is a progressive tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, with the stated mission of "comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media".

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