Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Google’s Sundar Pichai testified last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the problem of disinformation and misinformation online, issues that have undoubtedly contributed to the polarization we see in America today. And there are plenty of missteps the three might answer for. What the committee failed to address was perhaps a greater source of polarization and division in America – themselves.
It’s tempting to flatten this issue and focus exclusively on how social media contributes to the problem. But to do so overshadows the many factors, like toxic political rhetoric, that have helped create the divisive tone we see in our nation today.
There are, of course, plenty of things to criticize about social media companies. While Facebook and Twitter are private companies free to make their own decisions about what speech they want to host on their platforms, inconsistency and lack of transparency in many of their individual decisions doesn’t inspire consumer confidence.
One of many examples would be Facebook and Twitter’s decisions to block a New York Post story that was critical of Hunter Biden this past October with no meaningful explanation. Or the inconsistency displayed in banning former President Trump while leaders from authoritarian regimes remained active on the platform.
Free speech advocates have plenty to not like in both the breadth of the language of their policies restricting speech and their seeming willingness to alter those policies and their meaning to restrict more speech in response to pressure campaigns.
But members of this Congress criticizing social media platforms for our polarization and the spread of political falsehoods?
One thing 2020 reinforced is America’s crisis of political leadership. We have political leaders far too willing to tell us what they think is popular even if it’s not true. Whether it’s entitlement spending, coronavirus, immigration, health care, or social media regulation, we need more honesty from our political class. Instead, we too often get attempts to paper over real problems by distracting us with the faults of the other side.
Political leaders trying to turn the world’s three most important computer geeks into public punching bags — showing more interest in scoring a viral moment than creating actual change — is not leadership. Leadership should be taking a long look in the mirror and recognizing that when politicians pit people against one another with zero-sum rhetoric, it might be effective politics, but it is not good for the polity. It might keep them in office, but the predictable result of ratcheting up the high-stakes feelings around every national election will be believing our future depends on the other side being relegated to the past
Social media platforms can be part of the solution to our polarization. It’s important to ask whether their efforts are helping or making things worse. Just as their content moderation policies can be criticized on free speech grounds even though they have no First Amendment obligations, so should their voluntary attempts to address polarization be criticized where they are ineffective or counterproductive. But that is very different than being singled out as the cause of political dysfunction by members of Congress much nearer the source of the problem.
The point of the much-maligned Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is that we, not the platforms on which we speak, are responsible for what we say online. Members of Congress stoking the fires of division, not Mark Zuckerberg, bear responsibility for what they say. If Congress wants to get serious about the polarization and violence that can result from it, it should consider fewer show hearings and more introspection.
Casey Mattox is vice president of legal and judicial strategy at Americans for Prosperity.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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