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Don't mistake moderators for censors

Posted on October 19, 2020

Columns

With so-called censors like these, who needs publicists?

Facebook and Twitter are under the microscope for suppressing links to an unverified news story alleging Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden brokered a meeting between a Ukrainian energy company executive and his father while Biden served as vice president.

If you already knew that, the tech giants’ ham-fisted efforts to bury the New York Post story clearly didn’t work. But conservative critics are so incensed that they’re willing to strip social media companies of essential liability shields.

President Donald Trump has declared war on Communications Decency Act Section 230, which states in part that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In plain English, that means websites can’t be held liable for most user-generated content that’s false, defamatory or otherwise unlawful.

The Federal Communications Commission will draft new rules on Section 230’s enforcement, Chairman Ajit Pai announced Thursday. Trump and many of his allies want the entire section repealed.

“When government granted these protections,” the president tweeted, “they created a monster!”

Conservatives want to prevent social networks from squelching right-wing content. Instead of allowing websites to choose what they moderate, fact-check, demonetize and block, they’d try to make tech firms liable for most or all user postings.

A digital equivalent of the FCC’s defunct Fairness Doctrine requiring political neutrality has been discussed, but any such rule would be on a constitutional collision course. Forget the Supreme Court; that couldn’t pass muster in a mall food court.

Big Tech may be massive — Facebook boasts 2.7 billion profiles, and Twitter touts 330 million active monthly users — but the companies are private actors, not government agencies. Users don’t have free speech rights to post whatever they please. Websites have free speech rights to determine what kind of content they’ll host.

When government tries to muffle your message, it’s censorship. When a company chooses to remove your words from its platform, it’s editing.

Section 230 is “essential to having sites that feature comments from users,” First Amendment lawyer Ken White explained in a Friday post on his Substack site. “And people are absolutely flat-out lying to you about what it says, and what it means, for political advantage.”

Repealing Section 230 wouldn’t require moderators to treat conservative and liberal speech the same. It would make it easier to sue websites for user content that’s alleged to be libelous or defamatory. To limit their liability, companies would be more likely to scrub controversial postings from across the political spectrum.

For Facebook foes, the crusade is counterintuitive. Gutting protections for third-party content would cement social media monopolies through regulatory capture. Tech titans can afford armies of moderators and lawyers to police user comments. Upstart competitors with fewer resources can’t duplicate that strategy.

Trump’s tweak may target Goliaths, but it would devastate Davids. If your local newspaper or favorite blog or message board could be hauled into court over user content, it’s likely to turn off the commenting feature altogether.

Online communities will suffer as dialogues become monologues. If online publishing platforms are forced to take responsibility for others’ words, most people will have to build, host and maintain their own websites in order to share ideas, making the consumer internet far less democratic.

Those who feel Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and their ilk are biased would be better off voting with their feet. Friendster and MySpace once ruled the roost and are now consigned to the digital dustbin. Instead of trying to bend Big Tech to your will, build a better mousetrap.

It’s also worth considering the law of unintended consequences. The Hunter Biden story went viral despite Facebook’s and Twitter’s best efforts. When moderators blocked links to the New York Post website, users shared screen shots and memes edited to reference the piece. Dozens of news outlets covered the backlash and referenced the Post’s reporting.

Big Tech amplified what it wished to silence, and that’s a natural risk of trying to suppress information. If Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are reading this, please ban my column from your platforms. I could use the free publicity.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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