Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) put Twitter on notice on Wednesday, calling on CEO Jack Dorsey to undergo a third-party audit of its suspension policies.
Conservatives have long complained about seemingly arbitrary suspensions of their accounts — most of which come with no explanation or meaningful ability to appeal. Most recently, the Twitter account for the pro-life movie Unplanned was suspended just as the movie was hitting theaters. When the account was restored, its administrators discovered that nearly 100,000 followers had disappeared. Users (myself included) reported trying to follow the account and immediately being forced to unfollow.
Hawley mentioned the episode in his letter to Jack Dorsey, saying that it raised “yet more questions about your supposed commitment to free speech.”
“In light of these events, and in view of Twitter’s history of de-platforming conservative voices, it is time for Twitter to open itself to a third-party audit of how and when the company enforces its suspension policies,” Hawley wrote.
The senator, who has been a vocal proponent of investigating big tech companies, said that conservatives who advocate for the “dignity of all persons, regardless of size or age” are used to being treated unfairly by corporations. “But platform companies like Twitter are supposed to rise above that partisan nonsense.”
Hawley reminded Dorsey of his 2018 commitment “to serve the public conversation” by “defending freedom of expression as a fundamental human right” at Twitter.
Social media platforms have been given a “sweetheart deal,” according to Hawley, which includes “immunity from liability for illegal content posted by third parties.” They were given special consideration, he said, because they promised to provide “a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.”
The senator was referring to the telecommunication provisions in federal law that created separate rules for social media platforms that, unlike publishers, are not subject to civil liabilities for posting illegal material.
Hawley said that Twitter has repeatedly “abused” those privileges. “You often refuse to allow pro-life organizations to purchase ads because you deem it ‘inflammatory’ when these groups advocate for the right to life, but you allow those on the other side to advocate for late-term abortion—a practice opposed by more than 80 percent of Americans,” he said.
“And when you ‘fully admit’ that Twitter’s ‘bias … is more left-leaning,’ is it any wonder that this kind of political censorship disproportionately harms conservatives?” he asked.
Dorsey made that admission in a 2018 interview with CNN. The CEO gave lip service to fairness — saying that Twitter should be transparent about its viewpoints while at the same time operating without bias. “But the real question behind the question is, are we doing something according to political ideology or viewpoints? And we are not. Period,” Dorsey insisted, saying that the company bans bad behavior on the platform, not viewpoints.
“Given this troubling history, the decision to suspend the account for a pro-life movie on opening weekend is too much to be a coincidence. I am rapidly losing confidence that Twitter is committed to the free speech principles that justify immunity under section 230,” he said. “It is time for Twitter to prove it is truly committed to free speech: conduct a third-party audit and release the results to the public, in full.”
Hawley dismissed the idea of an internal audit by Twitter, saying that it would be “inherently biased.”
“The public deserves an audit untainted by self-interest. And free speech requires a platform that is truly open to all viewpoints,” said Hawley. “For that reason, it is imperative you open Twitter for an audit by a neutral third-party organization and make the results public.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for increased regulation of the internet last week, saying, “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree. I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
“Internet companies should be accountable for enforcing standards on harmful content,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s impossible to remove all harmful content from the internet, but when people use dozens of different sharing services — all with their own policies and processes — we need a more standardized approach.”
He floated the idea of third-party organizations “to set standards governing the distribution of harmful content and measure companies against those standards.” Regulation, said Zuckerberg, “could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.”
The problem, of course, is how to prevent a third-party group from bringing their own biases to the evaluation process. If organizations like the left-leaning Snopes, PolitiFact, and the Southern Poverty Law Center are tasked with giving input into content decisions (as they currently are at Facebook), then conservatives will be in no better position to post their views on social media platforms than they are today — and, in fact, it could make things worse.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — an internet freedom thinktank —blasted Zuckerberg’s lame attempt to stave off more burdensome regulations that may be on the horizon.
“Requiring companies to build systems to take down only ‘harmful content’ is a dangerous exercise in magical thinking,” EFF wrote. “No algorithm and group of moderators can perfectly differentiate between speech that should be protected and speech that should be erased, not least because a great deal of problematic content sits in the ambiguous territory between disagreeable political speech and abuse, or between fabricated propaganda and legitimate opinion, or between things that are legal in some jurisdictions and not others. Or they’re simply things some users want to read and others don’t.”
Indeed, Facebook and other social media platforms have rules against “hate speech,” which increasingly has come to mean speech that liberals in Silicon Valley disagree with. If you criticize a woman who brags about her abortion on social media, you’re engaging in hate speech. If you insist that there are only two genders or that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, you’re guilty of hate speech, according to our moral betters who run the social media platforms.
“Zuckerberg should know given the phalanx of smart lawyers he employs, regulations along the lines he suggests would violate the First Amendment in the U.S.,” EFF said.
There are no easy answers to this problem. As the law currently stands, Twitter, Facebook, et. al are private companies and can legally ban or suppress any speech they want. While many on the conservative side think federal regulations are the answer, we ought to think long and hard about the consequences of such regulations. More often than not, when the government gets involved, things get infinitely more complicated and more expensive — and, ultimately, less free.
Follow me on Twitter @pbolyard
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Hawley as a senator from Arkansas.