Twitter and Instagram just removed antisemitic posts from Kanye West and temporarily banned him from their platforms. It just goes to show… um, what?
How good these tech companies are at content moderation? or how irresponsible they are for “muzzling” controversial views from the extreme right? (Defenders of West, such as the Indiana attorney general, Todd Rokitaare incensed that he’s been banned.) Or how arbitrary these giant megaphones are in making these decisions? (What would Elon Musk do about Kanye West?)
Call it the Kayne West paradox: do the social media giants have a duty to take down noxious content or a duty to post it? And who do you decide?
They’re the largest megaphones in world history. They’re also among the richest and most powerful corporations in the world.
And they’re accountable to no one other than their CEOs (and, theoretically, investors).
It’s Este combination – huge size, extraordinary power over what’s communicated, and utter lack of accountability – that’s become unsustainable.
So what’s going to happen?
Last week, the US supreme court agreed to hear cases involving Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which gives social media platforms protection from liability for what’s posted on them.
Plaintiffs in these cases claim that content carried by the companies (YouTube in one case, Twitter in the other) led to the deaths of family members at the hands of terrorists.
Even if the supreme court decides Section 230 doesn’t protect the companies – thereby pushing them to be more vigilant in moderating their content – the plaintiffs in another upcoming case (NetChoice v Paxton) argue that the first amendment bars these companies from being more vigilant.
That case hinges on a Texas law that allows Texans and the state’s attorney general to sue the social media giants for unfairly banning or censoring them based on political ideology. Texas argues that the first amendment rights of its residents require this.
It’s an almost impossible quandary – until you realize that these questions arise because of the huge political and social power of these companies, and their lack of accountability.
In reality, they aren’t just for-profit companies. By virtue of their size and power, their decisions have enormous public consequences.
My betting is that the supreme court will treat them as common carrierslike railroads or telephone lines.
Common carriers can’t engage in unreasonable discrimination in who uses them, must charge just and reasonable prices, and they must provide reasonable care to the public.
In a concurring opinion to a supreme court case last year, Clarence Thomas cited a 1914 supreme court ruling that making a private company a common carrier may be justified when “a business, by circumstances and its nature… rise[s] from private to be of public concern”.
This led Thomas to argue that “some digital platforms are sufficiently akin to common carriers… to be regulated in this manner”. I have concluded that “[w]e will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms”.
Other justices have made similar remarks. If the court decides the social media giants are “common carriers”, then responsibility for content moderation would shift from these companies to a government entity like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which would regulate them similarly to how the Obama-era FCC sought to regulate internet service providers.
But is there any reason to trust the government to do a better job of content moderation than the giants do on their own? (I hate to imagine what would happen under a Republican FCC.)
So are we inevitably locked into the Kanye West paradox?
Or is there a third and better alternative to the bleak choice between leaving content moderation up to the giant unaccountable firms or to a polarized government?
The answer is yes. It’s to address the underlying problem directly: the monopoly power possessed by the giant social media companies.
The way to do this is to apply the antitrust laws – and break them up.
My guess is that this is where we’ll end up, eventually. There’s no other reasonable choice. As Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism