Americans are right to be concerned about the power wielded by tech companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The permanent banning of Donald J. Trump from Twitter and Apple and Amazon’s removal of Parler from their respective app store and AWS servers has led to calls for action, fueled by the fear that all non-leftist voices may one day be forever barred from social media.
The current state of banning, stifling, and removal of voices who dissent from leftist or woke orthodoxy is bad for America, bad for open debate, and bad for liberty. Of all the possible responses to this dilemma, however, getting the government involved would turn a deeply worrisome situation into something far worse and likely irreversible.
Double-Standards and Distinctions
Yes, it’s grossly hypocritical and transparently inconsistent that vile tweets from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as heinous propaganda from the Communist Party of China are allowed to remain on Twitter, while Trump has been banned. Yet there is an important distinction between being outraged that a private company doing something we may disagree with and recognizing it is within their rights to do such a thing.
Illiberal actions may be wrong or reprehensible, but they are neither automatically unconstitutional nor illegal simply because they are illiberal or offend us. Being on Twitter isn’t a natural right endowed to anyone, just as a cable network doesn’t have to grant a television show to each American that wants one.
Twitter isn’t a “public forum” guaranteed by constitutional interpretations of our First Amendment protections of freedom of speech or association — it’s a private entity. Anyone is free to sign up. Anyone is free to leave if he chooses, and, even though it may be the incorrect call, Twitter reserves the right to remove anyone at their leisure; yes, even if that person is the current sitting president of the United States.
The Case of President Trump
From his very first tweet on May 4, 2009 — encouraging folks to watch him on David Letterman’s late-night show — Trump and Twitter entered a mutual, consensual relationship. It was a relationship that could be severed by either party at any time.
In the most accurate sense, Twitter’s permanent ban of Trump constitutes his denied use of the specific virtual private property owned by Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey.
Trump isn’t being “censored” in the legal, constitutional meaning of the word — he’s being ostracized and shunned. There’s a difference, and it’s not a pedantic one. An instance of the former would be an affront to one’s First Amendment right to be protected by government encroachments on speech. An instance of the latter is a matter of favoritism mixed with covering one’s culpability, which may be loathsome and antithetical to the values of a pluralistic society but apparently legal nonetheless.
Nothing prevents Trump from self-publishing his opinions utilizing any number of free or inexpensive venues on the internet or sharing them verbally in person with anyone who will listen. What he can’t do, however, is force a private business to provide him a platform for his speech. As such, insofar as every restaurant owner has the right to refuse service to someone who is inappropriately dressed or is flinging food at the other customers, Twitter evicted Trump.
The Temptation of the Leviathan
Outrage over the recent stifling behavior of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, et al does not mean it is necessary or proper for the government to step in and use its exclusive monopoly on the legal use of force to make it a “right” to use any such service.
Yet calls from Republicans to “nationalize Twitter” and for the government to “do something!” can be heard from newly elected GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorne, to Frank Miele of RealClearPolitics, to Human Events co-publisher Will Chamberlain.
Like all large-scale government interventions, this would spell disaster, unleashing innumerable negative unintended consequences we can’t even imagine right now. It would be foolhardy even if the Republican Party held the White House and Congress, but to push for such a response just as President-elect Joe Biden is about to take over is indescribably shortsighted.
A society that rightly values freedom of association, freedom of contract, mutual exchange between adults, and private property rights must allow business owners the right to control and oversee their enterprises as they see fit. In a free country, the freedom to associate must include its reciprocal: the freedom not to associate.
It’s fundamentally wrong when government doles out favors or protections to a select preferred few. Yet it is similarly misguided and wrong for the government to force a private company to host speech it disagrees with, just as it would be wrong if the government forced a Christian baker to craft a cake that violates his religious beliefs.
“There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs,” Thomas Sowell has tried to remind us. The axiom was made in reference to trade, but it applies to virtually all economic and political measures. “Compared to what?” and “What are the consequences?” are two sincere questions to be asked in the debate over what to do about social media’s hypocritical toleration of inflammatory rhetoric from some users but not others.
Rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court in the cases of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette and Wooley v. Maynard have held the U.S. government can’t force Americans to either display or parrot speech that goes against their beliefs. As Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson noted in his majority opinion for Barnette:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
If a future U.S. government possessed the power to force social media companies to host speech, such an action would make the United States far more like China compared to Twitter’s act of removing Trump. A genuinely authoritarian, state-run, nationalized internet is what one finds in North Korea. It’s also not the internet as we know it but an intranet — closed, disconnected to any live downloading, and barred from any interaction with the outside world.
When citizens log on to the “internet” in North Korea, what they’re really doing is browsing an offline communist Wikipedia, featuring only articles and information approved from the Dear Leader. That’s totalitarian thought control. That’s the true achievement of Orwell’s “1984,” in which the state — not private entities — is the villain, and, with the power of monopolized physical force at its disposal, it sees, hears, and regulates all.
While nationalizing social media or placing them under the oversight of a government agency wouldn’t create a reality analogous to North Korea overnight, it would be exceedingly unwise to even dip our toes in the water of that idea.
The reason China’s “Great Firewall,” which greatly inhibits the ability of its citizens to access the internet, and its genuinely Orwellian “social credit” system are so effective is because they have the threat of government force behind them. If one believes large tech companies have too much sway now, just imagine what they could do with the power of the U.S. government while controlled by one’s political opponents.
At the start of FDR’s “New Deal,” Democratic Sen. James F. Byrnes said the quiet part out loud: “The nearest earthly approach to immortality is a bureau of the federal government.” A generation later in 1964, after Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy either refused or failed to reverse the growth of the government leviathan, Ronald Reagan observed that not only are government bureaus essentially immortal but once they’re created, they never voluntarily relinquish the power they wield.
As desperate as things may look at the present, Americans should think twice before willingly placing the hands of social media into a government that’s been steadily growing in power since the dawn of the 20th century.
The Power of Righteous Condemnation
Fear of the power held by today’s most successful tech companies is understandable. There are actions, however, that can be done to encourage positive reform without involving the government and making everything far worse.
Remember, platforms like Twitter need users to survive, not the other way around. Like so many sites and platforms on the internet, Twitter makes the vast majority of its money through advertisements (86 percent in its case). Americans who have an issue with how its rules and terms of conduct are applied unevenly must vote with their wallets and boycott the site.
The only way to effectively signal anger at how a company is managing itself is in the marketplace; hitting a company where it hurts — financially — is the best, most effective mechanism to influence how a business conducts its affairs.
A loss of even a share of the 74.2 million Americans who voted for Trump, and even more Republicans across the board, would deliver a massive blow to the bottom-lines of tech companies. Indeed, early evidence suggests departures are already taking a toll. Twitter’s stock slid 12.3 percent the morning of Jan. 11, representing the erasure of a whopping $2.5 billion of Twitter’s market capitalization, before ending the day down 6 percent, still a hefty plunge. Facebook’s shares dropped 4 percent.
As Parler has just done, aggrieved enterprises attempting to break the logjam of leftist tech companies should avail themselves of every legal avenue if they believe genuine collusion and anti-competitive behaviors are taking place amongst their competition.
Finally, the near-universal denouncement of the Soviet Union marshaled the 1980s was not an insignificant factor in the defeat of communism in Europe. Following suit, whether in person, in newsprint, in writing, on television, and any other avenue they can, Americans should voice their displeasure of the anti-pluralistic, anti-liberty, leftist favoritism displayed by so many tech companies. If determined and widespread condemnation helped doom a global superpower, hope remains that it can be a crucial ingredient in the effort to persuade tech companies to change their ways.
Voting with one’s wallet while persuading others of the bias and overreach of tech companies can be a potent remedy. It’s certainly worth a concerted, prolonged effort — especially in place of ceding more control to a federal government in Washington, D.C., that’s already expanded far beyond the worst nightmares of America’s Founders.