Dennis Prager recently made a case for government management of social media in the Wall Street Journal. Prager is a conservative so it might seem odd to find him plumping for government control of private businesses. But he is a part of a new conservatism that rejects the older tradition of laissez-faire that informed the right. What could justify Big Government regulation for tech companies?
Prager argues that the companies have a legal obligation to moderate their platforms without political bias. He thinks they are biased and thus fail to meet their obligation. But the companies have no such obligation and to be charitable, it is far from clear that they are biased against conservative content.
Let’s look at the law first. Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 says:
1)…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.
(2) …No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of…any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected;
Section 230 did seek to promote free speech and to empower companies to moderate content on their platforms. Prager doesn’t see that promoting free speech requires exempting the companies from the legal obligations of publishers and speakers. A newspaper can review and edit material it publishes and thus should take responsibility for the harms it might do. Social media giants like Facebook have billions of users producing content. They can hardly review all of it before it appears. If they were held liable for the content, the companies would likely take no chances and suppress all content that might cause harm and legal liability. In other words, absent immunity from liability, the companies would sharply restrict speech on their platforms; the liability exemption thereby promotes free speech.
Of course, if they did not nothing at all, the platforms would become much less valuable to users. The law also empowers the platforms to restrict content that is “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” Prager notices the obscenity part, but somehow misses the words “otherwise objectionable.” If YouTube decided Prager’s videos were neither violent nor obscene but were “otherwise objectionable,” the company could restrict access to them. In other words, the law empowers YouTube to be biased against Prager if they wish. And Prager thinks they do have it in for him and other conservatives. As you might have guessed by now, there is lot less to this claim than meets the eye.
Consider what Prager himself tells us: YouTube now hosts 320 Prager University videos that get a billion views a year. Indeed, a new video goes up every week. Not exactly the Gulag is it? He complains that 56 of those 320 videos are on YouTube’s “restricted list” which means (according to Prager) “any home, institution or individual using a filter to block pornography and violence cannot see those videos. Nor can any school or library.” In other words, YouTube has “restricted access” to materials on its site its managers consider “otherwise objectionable.” Was YouTube biased against Prager and other conservatives? Prager himself notes leftwing sites also ended up on the restricted list. But that’s different, he says, because their videos are violent or obscene while his are not.
Prager fails to mention that videos from The History Channel are restricted at twice the rate of his films. Hardly a bastion of left-wing vulgarity, The History Channel’s videos often discuss historical atrocities and totalitarian regimes. While these clips may be educational, Google seems to believe that the 1.5% of YouTube users who voluntarily opt-in to restricted mode wish to avoid even educational discussions of atrocity. Dennis Prager’s video about the Ten Commandments is restricted for similar discussions of the Nazi’s Godless regime. It is far from unreasonable to allow parents to decide how their children are taught about such horrors. A reasonable conservative might even applaud such support for the family.
Who gets to decide whether left wing videos or historical documentaries are different than Prager’s videos? The law says YouTube gets to decide. Imagine you took the words “otherwise objectionable” out of Section 230. Who would then decide about restricting material? In the past, conservatives would have said the owners and managers of private property decide how best to use their assets. But the times seem to be changing.
Prager cites a study by a Columbia University researcher that purports to prove online bias against conservatives. The study cites 22 cases covered by the press in which Twitter suspended the accounts of individuals, almost all of whom were Trump supporters. Prager is arguing that a sample of just 22 cases from Twitter alone proves systemic bias against…whom? Conservatives? The list of 22 suspended accounts is, “a who’s who of outspoken or accused white nationalists, neo-Confederates, holocaust deniers, conspiracy peddlers, professional trolls, and other alt-right or fringe personalities…It does not include any mainstream conservatives, unless, I suppose, you count recently-indicted Trump campaign advisor and ‘dirty trickster’ Roger Stone.” Is Prager broadening the big tent of conservatism here? If not, what does this study, as limited as it is, prove about bias against conservatives?
Prager’s other argument about bias comes in the form of a question: “Do they [conservatives skeptical of his views] think Google, Facebook and Twitter—the conduits of a vast proportion of the free world’s public information—don’t act on their loathing of conservatives?” This question nicely combines two kinds of logical fallacies. It assumes the truth of what is to be proved, the fallacy of pettio princippi while appealing to confirmation bias among Prager’s readers. Sadly, this may be the most effective rhetoric in the essay, notwithstanding its logical faults. But it does nothing for his case against Google.
The final paragraph of the essay is perhaps the most revealing about the new conservatism. He draws an analogy to the airlines who are treated as common carriers and expected to provide service to all. Of course, the airlines were also heavily regulated for many decades to the detriment of consumers. Prager gestures in this way toward a future of heavy regulation for social media, a future that will be novel if not conservative. “Not conservative” that is, if what conservatives said in my lifetime about the proper limits of government ever had any meaning at all beyond the moment they were spoken.