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The big social media companies will be harder to regulate than you think


Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

There's a growing consensus among Americans that something should be done about social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Executives from all the major tech companies have faced bipartisan hostile grilling from members of Congress in hearings recently, and the growing public rumbling seems to suggest that some sort of governmental action to increase government regulation on social media giants is around the corner.

The people on both sides of the political spectrum who are craving this result should be careful, lest they get what they want.

The legal justification for some form of aggressive regulation and/or breakup of the social media giants probably already exists.

As of March 2019, Facebook had more than 2.3 billion monthly active users, and that number continues to grow. Facebook had over $55 billion in revenue last year. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 35 times as much as the annual revenue of the Standard Oil trust at the height of its power.

The size and scope of the modern tech giants mean that they exercise more control over the dissemination of information than any entity that has ever existed before. The nightly newscasts of the big three television networks at the height of their power reached less than 1 percent of Facebook's audience, combined. Modern-day censors working for the Chinese government influence the flow of information to about 1.4 billion people — a figure slightly over half the size of Facebook's audience. Further, their reach means that countless businesses and content creators depend on companies like Facebook and YouTube to exist.

Additionally, the nature of social media makes the creation of meaningful competitors to companies like Facebook and Twitter virtually impossible. The reason everyone is on Facebook is because ... everyone is on Facebook. No one would be interested in signing up for a new social media platform that would allow them to keep up with their friends, if less than 5 percent of their friends were still on it. That would be like trying to start a cell phone company that sold phones that would only connect to other users of the same cell phone company; there might be a limited demand for such a product but it wouldn't be any meaningful competition to Facebook whatsoever.

The alleged problems with the social media giants are well known, and vary depending on who you talk to. Conservatives claim (with adequate justification) that social media giants are unfairly biased against conservatives when deciding who to ban, suspend, or demonetize. Liberals claim that the social media giants aren't doing enough to combat "hate speech," which often in their minds includes mainstream beliefs like "people who are born as males should not be allowed to compete in women's sports just because they have decided that they are female."

Both sides, meanwhile, complain about the spread of "fake news," which usually just means news that conflicts with their point of view. All parties complain that social media companies aren't doing enough to protect the privacy of their users' personal data.

Social media, then, has obvious problems that everyone can see. However, we ought to be careful about invoking governmental action as a cure; often, government cures are worse than the disease.

In the first place, the traditional antitrust remedies available to the government would not really fix any of the problems with the social media companies. Breaking up a company like Facebook into constituent parts would not a) be feasible or b) solve the problems that have been noted with social media companies. Likewise, breaking social media companies up into geographical regions like the government did with the telecoms would be unworkable and also ineffectual. It also wouldn't make sense on any obvious level to force the social media giants to resell access to their product, as the government has periodically done with telecoms and cable companies, because of the nature of social media (as discussed above).

Second, a general consensus does not exist as to what, exactly, needs to be done with the social media companies. As noted above, depending on your political leanings, you're likely to have different opinions about what the government should be forcing social media companies to do, exactly. Should the government be policing fake news? Should it be protecting free speech on Facebook? Should it be making sure social media isn't encouraging suicides?

This lack of consensus means that the regulatory hand of government will likely be arbitrary and whipsaw depending on who is in control of the government. The almost inevitable result will be viewpoint suppression of people who oppose the current presidential administration. Given the incredible power of social media in the dissemination of information in the modern age, this would be perhaps worse than allowing Facebook to make arbitrary and biased decisions on their own.

Sooner or later, after all, a Democrat is going to become president, and when that happens, does anyone want that president's administration involved in decisions on what Facebook can and can't suppress? Are we willing to live with the result when President Bernie Sanders decides that all articles that dispute the stated price tag on his single-payer program are fake news and therefore must be deleted by Facebook?

The alternate solution, requiring social media companies to allow ALL content, would be better from the standpoint of preserving a healthy democracy, but would likely mean the end of social media as we know it. Twenty-plus years of internet experience has taught us that any internet space that is completely unmoderated will immediately be overrun with trolls, racists, and spammers who will promptly drive the normal people who just want to enjoy sharing things with their friends off the platform.

The last time everyone decided that something needed to be done to fix a major failure in the private sector, the TSA came into existence. Now, everyone seems to more or less have regret over that decision. However, everyone seems to forget those lessons and be ready to plunge into another major government intervention.

I admit that something ought to be done about the many systematic failures of the social media industry. However, the American public should be cautious before rushing a government-imposed solution to the problem that might either make the problem worse or subvert democracy entirely.

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