By Justin Haskins
Published April 28, 2019
Conservatives and libertarians are facing a monumental, existential threat from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. If we don’t act quickly to reverse course, supporters of liberty could someday find themselves permanently silenced by these powerful organizations.
Together, social media sites like Facebook control the flow of a massive amount of information and news. Facebook is the third-most trafficked website in the world, and more than two-thirds of all U.S. adults say they get their news at least occasionally while on Facebook, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.
Despite numerous statements to the contrary, Facebook and other social media platforms have a clear bias against pro-liberty individuals, writers, media, organizations and activists. They have repeatedly been caught engaging in biased actions against conservative and libertarian users — a fact I know from first-hand experience.
Facebook banned, without any warning, my advertising account with the site after I “boosted” a short video criticizing far-left policies. The video highlighted an anti-socialism presentation I and Donald Kendal, my colleague at The Heartland Institute, delivered at a conference held by Students for Liberty in January.
For two months, Facebook’s support team refused to provide an explanation for the ban, despite more than five appeals and multiple requests for a clarification. When I finally did receive an explanation, I was told my account had been banned because my ad was “misleading,” which Facebook defines as “Ads, landing pages, and business practices ... [that] contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods.”
One example Facebook uses on its website for a “misleading” ad is “3 Shocking Tips to Lose All Your Belly Fat.” I guess in the eyes of many at Facebook, telling college students the truth about socialism’s violent, chaotic, destructive history is akin to peddling snake oil and fat pills.
After two months of appeals, multiple conversations with Facebook’s support team, and no clear explanation of exactly what it was about the video I posted that was so “misleading,” Facebook finally decided to reverse its ban — one day after Fox News published my story.
According to Facebook, the decisions to ban my account, reject several appeals across two months, and cite its “misleading” ads policy were simply “mistakes,” not part of a deliberate attempt to silence conservative speech.
If you believe that, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
I’m not the first conservative to fight a social media giant and win. In 2017, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., cried foul after Twitter banned one of her campaign ads. Twitter later reversed the decision, admitting the company “made the wrong call.”
In August 2018, after much backlash, Facebook restored several videos by conservative organization PraegerU, including two videos that had been labeled as containing “hate speech.” Facebook apologized for the removal, saying the videos were removed “mistakenly.”
Requiring Facebook, Twitter, and other companies to choose between being a truly open platform or a publisher would effectively force social media giants — no matter how far to the left their employees lean — to change their ways.
Earlier in 2019, Facebook banned users from sharing content from right-leaning website ZeroHedge, a decision it quickly reversed after prominent conservative critics, including Donald Trump Jr., led a public campaign against the social media platform. Facebook called the decision a “mistake.”
Do you sense a pattern here?
Social media bias is very real, but it can only be stopped when conservatives are united and refuse to tolerate policies used to silence users based on their political views or political speech. But, as the examples above show, merely getting outraged each and every time social media platforms silence free expression won’t stop these problems from occurring again in the future. We need a united, consistent, principled plan to permanently end social media bias.
Here’s one potential solution: Conservatives and their elected representatives must demand social media platforms either operate as truly open platforms or else be reclassified as publishers, opening the door for platforms to be held liable for the deliberately false and defamatory statements made by their users.
As Adam Candeub and Mark Epstein noted in 2018 for City Journal, “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes online platforms for their users’ defamatory, fraudulent, or otherwise unlawful content. Congress granted this extraordinary benefit to facilitate ‘forum[s] for a true diversity of political discourse.’ This exemption from standard libel law is extremely valuable to the companies that enjoy its protection, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, but they only got it because it was assumed that they would operate as impartial, open channels of communication — not curators of acceptable opinion.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, explained in a 2018 column, “In order to be protected by Section 230, companies like Facebook should be ‘neutral public forums.’ On the flip side, they should be considered to be a ‘publisher or speaker’ of user content if they pick and choose what gets published or spoken.”
Cruz later added, “But if Facebook is busy censoring legal, protected speech for political reasons, the company should be held accountable for the posts it lets through. And it should not enjoy any special congressional immunity from liability for its actions.”
This is precisely the right position for conservatives to take. If social media platforms don’t want conservative views expressed on their websites because they find the material distasteful, they have a right to ban pro-liberty content. However, they should only be permitted to do as publishers, and thus be held to the same legal standards other publishers are subjected to.
Requiring Facebook, Twitter, and other companies to choose between being a truly open platform or a publisher would effectively force social media giants — no matter how far to the left their employees lean — to change their ways. Without the protections provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, most social media companies wouldn’t be able to survive without completely overhauling their businesses — and losing millions of users in the process. It would be much easier (and more profitable) for social media platforms to simply stop hindering political speech.
Of course, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others won’t change on their own. It’s up to us to push them in the right direction.