There is a lot of talk lately about social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc. being gatekeepers to our free speech. I’ve written on the issue before from the free speech angle. Here I’m more interested in the human behavioral side of things.
With all the chatter about breaking up social media monopolies, I wonder if anyone has stopped to ask why these particular sites have become monopolies. A decade and a half ago Myspace was the main social networking website. When Facebook came along, everyone went there. And why did everyone go to Facebook? I’m sure some of the earlier adopters did so for more technical reasons – nicer looking interface, easier to navigate, that sort of thing. But the reason everyone followed is because that’s where everyone else was going.
The whole point of social media is to connect with other people. The incentive is to go where everyone else is. That’s why people go to the same site for their social media needs. If Facebook is broken up, there might be a couple years where there are competing sites, but eventually people are going to go where they can connect. And where ‘influencers’ can get followers. The incentive again will be for one of the companies to end up with a monopoly. And for the most part, the kinds of people who will likely end up running the site are the kinds of people who hold onto a ‘diversity’ ideology like the ones who run Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Google, etc. right now. Within a few years, we’d be right back where we are now, just with some other social media site.
The other proposed solution is to treat popular social media sites like a publisher rather than a platform. The difference is that, as a platform, they are not responsible for the content people post on their site, just like the phone company isn’t responsible for what you say over the phone. If the social media sites were considered publishers, then it would be like they were publishing – and therefore condoning – anything that people post on their sites. As Peter Van Buren states it:
Being a platform is desirable for Facebook and the others, as it allows them to have no responsibility for the content they print, no need to create transparent rules or appeals processes for deplatforming, and users have no legal recourse. Publishers, on the other hand, are responsible for what they print, and can be taken to court if it’s libelous or maliciously false.
Social media’s claim to be a platform and not a publisher is based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That section, however, was predicated on social media companies being neutral public forums in return for legal protections against being sued over content they present. Now Twitter wants it both ways—they want the protection of being a platform but the power to ideologically manipulate their content as publishers do.
I wish I could count on people to see how ludicrous it would be the consider social media sites as publishers. That would only mean that they’d take more control over what people are saying on their sites. They would have to impose more restrictions if they wanted to avoid being accused of libel. And when it comes down to it, the people who own the sites really aren’t responsible for what people post to them.
However, I do understand the concern with the social media sites not acting like neutral platforms. They ought to act neutral, and the people who post on their sites ought to realize that they’re neutral – in other words, stop trying to deplatform people. That doesn’t mean I think there ought to be a law mandating this. As I said in my previous piece on the subject, I disagree with the premise that it’s an infringement on people’s right to free speech – indeed, it’s only an infringement on people’s privilege of being heard. But that doesn’t mean I condone deplatforming. I think it’s a despicable act of cowardice on the part of people who have no good arguments for their absurd ideology and therefore have to resort to bullying tactics.
Of course, I’m of a mind that people would be better off using social media sites a lot less often, and not using them to get their news. But, who am I to tell people what to do? That’s both the beauty and the horror of freedom.