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Why some conservatives want to regulate Facebook and Twitter

“The argument is that these companies are just biased.”

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey at a hearing on September 5, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified before Congress to answer questions about social media and foreign election interference — and alleged “pro-liberal bias” on both platforms.

But in advance of the hearings and just months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced similar questions from Congress members about bias and privacy on Facebook, some on the right — including the president of the United States — believe they may have found a solution to purported anti-conservative prejudice by big business: government regulation.

As Fox News host Laura Ingraham put during her show on Friday night, “There’s a thought that, given the enormity of these corporations, could there be a movement to treat [Twitter and Facebook] more like public utilities so they have some quasi-government oversight of these entities?”

Treating Twitter and Facebook as public utilities, like water or electricity, seems to be a strange response from many of the same people who, for instance, believe that water and electricity companies should be privatized. The “unholy marriage forged between the Republican Party and big business interests,” as conservative talk show host Larry O’Connor put it, has long been a staple of the modern GOP.

But in 2018, some conservatives are caught in a tenuous position, simultaneously arguing that private entities, like Masterpiece Cakeshop, for example, have the right to do business as they see fit, but that corporations like Twitter, Google, and Facebook don’t. They argue that’s largely because they’re not being “fair” to conservatives.

These conservatives aren’t advocating for the development of alternatives that will cater to conservatives. Instead, they want the government to do something about it.

James Pethokoukis, a columnist and the Dewitt Wallace fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the right is focused on specific companies perceived as left-leaning — and therefore problematic — not increased regulation as a blanket policy.

“The argument is that these companies are just biased,” he said. “They are biased against conservatives, they are biased against Trump supporters, and given their importance as a gateway into political talk, they need to be regulated.”

Free markets versus big business

Among conservatives, from Trump supporters to traditional GOP donors, being censored on social media, or having their content suppressed or demonetized, is a massive source of concern for obvious reasons. Conservatives, well aware of the potential power of social media, want the same access to it that they believe liberals already enjoy.

In the past year, conservatives have argued that many on the right, including high-level GOP Congress members, are being “shadow-banned” on Twitter, making their accounts less visible or not visible at all to others (a practice that the conservative Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell called “the most sinister threat to free speech in history”). Other right-wing figures have argued that the algorithms used by social media platforms are biased against conservatives, and that efforts to purge platforms of bots and fake accounts are unfairly targeting conservatives. In May, Facebook even established a task force to investigate allegations of anti-conservative bias on the platform.

I spoke with Stephen Kent, a spokesperson for Young Voices, a libertarian-leaning PR firm, who told me that the removal of conservative-aligned videos from YouTube (and the resulting lawsuit) marked a turning point for him and many others. “There was a new sense that reasonable, mellow packaging of conservative ideas into video content would be scrutinized no differently than that of a hate group on YouTube. Our political discourse takes a major hit when tech companies get it wrong on content moderation.”

That sentiment has exploded within conservative circles and has found a voice on Fox News. On Friday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson called out another major tech corporation, this time decrying Amazon for the company’s low wages and business practices.

In response, O’Connor, the talk show host, wrote a piece titled “Tucker Carlson is right: Conservatives should embrace the free market, not big business,” saying that while Carlson sounded “a lot like socialist Bernie Sanders,” his argument is a good one: Conservatives should support free markets, not the big businesses free markets have the potential to create, and the right should decry massive corporations getting government tax breaks that only benefit their shareholders:

... Anyone who has been paying attention to the American economy for the past 150 years knows that big business hates the free market. Free markets are bad for business because it allows for competition. Big business loves big government intervention as long as it intervenes in favor of their business and it helps out their interests. ... Much that is wrong with the conservative movement can be traced to the unholy marriage forged between the Republican Party and big business interests. We embraced the idea that big business was important to the American economy instead of recognizing that the real strength was the free market.

This argument isn’t new. Many conservatives, including the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, have long argued that capitalism isn’t the problem; “crony capitalism” is. In his 2006 book, The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money, Carney argued that large corporations are antithetical to truly free markets because they have the power and influence to curtail competition and survive regulations only they have the financial ability to endure. “The threat to American capitalism? The ‘capitalists’ themselves,” he wrote.

I reached out to Carney, and he told me that since 2006, the influence of populism and the close relationship between the Democratic Party and corporate interests had changed the game for many Republicans. “Trump’s populism and Obama’s corporatism broke Republicans of that reflexive pro-business stance,” he said. “Now they run the risk of the opposite problem, pushing regulations to control politically antagonistic companies. The irony is that, again, regulation will serve to protect these industry giants.”

And later in O’Connor’s piece, he gives the real game away. He’s not arguing in favor of increased regulation of all businesses to encourage fairness, competition, and better business practices. Rather, he’s aiming his ire at specific companies because he’s aghast at the “far left” attitudes of corporations like Amazon and Google:

Add to the mix the fact that we’ve seen these corporations and the scions who run them lurch to the far left in how they run their businesses, affect our culture and fund their favorite politicians and it’s pretty reasonable for a conservative to question how American taxpayers are enriching these individuals and their companies.

He compared the conservative push in favor of regulation (to limit the power of left-leaning companies) to past efforts by conservatives, including presidents, to create their own media outlets and invalidate others as biased at best and “fake news” at worst. In 1964, GOP candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign gave reporters pins that said “Eastern Liberal Press.” And in 1968, Richard Nixon went further, ordering his special counsel, Charles Colson, to push a book alleging that the major television networks were biased against him (and followed “the elitist-liberal-left line in all controversies”) onto the New York Times best-seller list.

Trying to create “an emotional wedge issue”

I spoke with Roslyn Layton, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who told me that in her work, she saw potential for conservatives and liberals to come together and agree on three major courses of action with regard to social media companies: more competition in platforms, transparency in how platforms are managed (in other words, more clarity about who gets banned from a platform and who doesn’t), and consistent consumer protections online.

She said the Federal Trade Commission could get involved, and added: “If Twitter throws you off their platform, they should explain why. ... It’s not that you need to regulate YouTube and Twitter per se, but you need to hold them to account to be transparent about their practices.”

But Pethokoukis, also of the American Enterprise Institute, said that some on the right aren’t making a logical argument about regulation, but an emotional one intended to garner clicks and pageviews — rather than proposing real, substantive actions to be taken by Congress that would apply to all tech companies equally.

And many conservatives, he said, seem to be treating Twitter, Amazon, and Google like “forever companies” that will never diminish in power or stature. But it’s worth remembering that Yahoo was once one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, and BlackBerrys once dominated the cellphone market.

As Kent, of Young Voices, said: “To embrace that line of thinking means accepting that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the present and future of social media. You’d have to disregard all the scenarios in which these companies eventually decline or get edged out of the market by new innovations and unforeseen shifts in consumer preferences.”

But telling voters or donors or fans of conservative YouTube series to “just create your own Twitter” doesn’t have the same visceral appeal as demanding hearings on “shadow banning,” Pethokoukis said.

“If the goal here is to get attention, ‘break ’em up, regulate em’ is a far more compelling message than a wonky ‘let’s change regulations or tax rates and we can organically change the industry’ argument,” he said.

In short, this is an “emotional wedge issue,” he added, intended “to get people fired up.” He said that telling conservatives to simply develop platforms of their own “just [doesn’t] have that kind of oomph.”