State Representative Patricia Morgan (Republican, District 26, West Warwick) has introduced a resolution H5099, in the Rhode Island House of Representatives “condemning the major technology companies, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, Snapchat and Youtube, for their attack on the free speech rights of the American public.”
Representative Morgan, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, makes many claims in her resolution, the major one being that these companies are engaging in a deliberate program of bias against conservative speech. She writes,
“WHEREAS, The apparent collusion and coordination of the major technology companies to censor competitors and private individuals under the thin veil of making the Internet ‘safe’ from political opinions with which these companies do not align,” and “they claim to be protecting the public from false and dangerous speech, while at the same time allowing hateful and violent rhetoric and threats from preferred actors to populate their sites.“
Representative Morgan further maintains that the actions of these companies is an “attack on free speech.”
“This current attack on free speech, of suspending the accounts of thought leaders, shadow banning accounts, and maligning opposing views with ‘false” labels is a disturbing and frightening embrace of those authoritarian tactics.“
Representative Morgan is particularly upset over the “de-platforming” of Parler, a conservative alternative to Facebook, which lost its web hosting at Amazon because it failed to do enough to prevent hate speech and the coordination of efforts by users to attack the Capitol on January 6. She writes,
“By silencing a competitor, they have maliciously flexed their monopoly power to not only kill off a competing social media platform, but to also rob the public of a popular alternative choice on which to participate in opinion sharing and dissemination.“
So does Representative Morgan have a point here? Are social media companies engaging in suppression of right-wing political thought?
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A new report from New York University, False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim that Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives by Paul M Barrett and J Grant Sims says no.
In the report, Barrett and Sims note that claims of liberal bias on social media platforms predates the Capitol insurrection and President Trump being banned from Twitter and cite a few examples from earlier in 2020:
- Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), July 2020, during a hearing of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee: “I will just cut to the chase. Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a suspicion. That’s not a hunch. That’s a fact.”
- Conservative internet commentator Ben Shapiro, October 2020, on Twitter: “What we are watching—the militari- zation of social media on behalf of Democrats, and the overt suppression of material damaging to Democrats to the cheers of the press—is one of the single most dangerous political moments I have ever seen.”
- Fox News host Tucker Carlson, November 2020, three weeks after the presidential election: Social media companies “rigged the election in front of all of us, and nobody did anything about it.”
In this context, far from being a critique of recent events, Representative Morgan’s resolution is simply a continuation of a right-wing narrative decrying a liberal media. The trouble with this narrative, “is that there is no reliable evidence to support it,” say the authors in their report. “There are no credible studies showing that Twitter removes tweets for ideological reasons or that Google manipulates search results to impede conservative candidates.”
In fact, say the authors, “the claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”
This false accusation, that social media platforms are suppressing conservative voices, hurts us as a country as we navigate difficult and important issues. Right now there is a robust conversation going on about the power of social media and their role in the dissemination of “disinformation, hate speech, and other harmful content.” The power of these companies to suppress competition through their social media monopolies is an important issue to deal with, and Congress has been discussing this, particularly Rhode Island’s United States Representative David Cicilline, who has been bringing an anti-trust critique to the power of these tech companies.
The misinformation of the kind Representative Morgan introduced in her resolution, “only distracts from reality- based critiques of the platforms,” say the authors of the study. The authors write:
“Disinformation about bias contributes to the delegitimization of the platforms at a time when they’re actually experimenting with more aggressive forms of fact-checking and content moderation —not just in the case of Donald Trump, but also in connection with falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines and conspiracy theories like QAnon. It’s not clear how far these experiments will go or what kind of impact they’ll have on users or society at large. But what’s needed now is sober analysis of the platforms’ actual behavior, not unverified allegations of political intolerance.”
When either chamber of the Rhode Island General Assembly takes official action in the form of a law or resolution, it is important that their actions be grounded in truth and reality. Compelling evidence must be brought to bear. At best House Resolution 5099 is a misguided, ill-informed attempt to address bias that simply does not exist. At worst, itis conspiracy pandering designed to obfuscate the real issues around the power of large social media companies.