Originally posted on May 30, 2020
There have been a pair of difficult issues in the news this week that relate to some of the principles in this essay series. I’ll start with the easier one, speech and social media. Three points to make:
1. There is a principled case for limiting the ability of social media firms to interfere with users’ posts. This executive order (second link below) partially makes that case before it reveals a more likely intent to flood Twitter with libel lawsuits – which does not encourage free speech.
Put simply, however, the principled argument is this: large social media firms, when facing anti-trust complaints, have argued – persuasively – that they need to function as monopolies, because the network effects produced by virtually everyone using their platform are necessary to provide their services as forums in which people can connect and exchange views. Facebook, in other words, would be less valuable to the public were it instead two separate firms, each of which had a smaller number of users. (After all, in such a world, the New Model Federalist would have even fewer readers than the handful I’m grateful to have now.)
Fair enough. But if the value of the service – and the reason it ought not to be subject to antitrust action – is that it functions as a public forum, then it ought not to impose restrictions on speech exceeding those established by law; and in the United States, the First Amendment ensures that public restrictions on free expression are fewer and narrower than those imposed by social media firms at present. Furthermore, the few restrictions that must exist in law can justly be determined only by an elected legislature that represents and is accountable to the public. The managers of social media firms, however noble they profess their intent to be, neither represent nor are accountable to the public.
2. This order, and the manner in which it came about, is marred by petty vindictiveness and malevolence. This can be seen plainly in its seventh full paragraph, beginning with “Twitter.” No republican government, elected to serve the whole country and all within it, ought to wield its power spitefully against specific individuals or firms. Such conduct, at best, debases the dignity of government; at worst, it becomes a means of repression. It is undoubtedly poor leadership.
3. Vital decisions involving the extent and limitations of free speech ought not to be made by the bureaucracy, as this executive order would have it. For the same reason abovementioned – that the legislature, and only the legislature, represents the people and is vested by them with the power of making laws – this matter ought to be resolved by Congress.
These points are simplified for brevity – the reality is complicated, and there is plenty of scope for disagreement.