How to Hold Big Tech Accountable for Biased Panic Porn

The censoring of White House COVID advisor Dr. Scott Atlas is but the latest effort to silence those not toeing the party line.

By D. Axe, W. Briggs, J. Richards Published on October 19, 2020

In The Price of Panic, we argue that Big Tech — from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to video platforms (YouTube) and search engines (Google) — was the catalyst for the social contagion that has shut down the world.

Facebook and YouTube have spent the last seven months validating “official” opinion and suppressing contrary opinions even from genuine experts. The latest outrage? Twitter has blocked a tweet, and locked the account of Dr. Scott Atlas, who is an advisor to the president of the United States. Atlas is a genuine expert. He knows as much about the complexities of health policy as any of the officials lionized by social media giants. And his views are backed up by solid scientific evidence, shared by thousands of health scientists and practitioners.

Obviously, these companies have ceased to provide open platforms for debate and information. They’ve become, instead, protectors of a party line — a line they helped create. It’s time to hold them accountable.

Quashing Dissenters

Of course, general panic could have spread even if the social media platforms were neutral platforms. According to Metcalfe’s Law, the power of a network goes up in proportion to the square of the number of users. Such a network effect means that a video of an old man falling dead on a street in China can soon find itself playing on a billion smartphones — without any help.

Unfortunately, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have worked overtime to boost the signals of experts who preach panic, while at the same time purging dissenters, like Scott Atlas, who urge caution and calm. Indeed, as we show in detail in The Price of Panic, these platforms have propped up purveyors of panic porn, experts and non-experts. And they’ve suppressed many genuine experts on the other side.

This has made the pandemic panic not just scary, but creepy.

Not a Government Takeover

Can we do anything to limit Big Tech’s perverse control over public debate? The standard libertarian response is “no.” These are private companies, so they can’t rightly be punished for censorship.

This claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, though. First, these companies dominate the public square. With such great power over the commons comes great responsibility.

Second, they benefit from a law that assumes they will be neutral platforms rather than publishers. Withdrawing that legal protection is not a government takeover.

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Indeed, we’re highly skeptical of calls to make these platforms public utilities. This would just result in what economists call “regulatory capture.” Instead of having private companies policing speech, as we have now, we’d have public-private mongrels doing the same, only with more power.

Nor should the government break up tech companies just because they succeed in the marketplace. Network effects mean that the best networks will tend to be the biggest. Forcing networks to break up would be, in effect, to prevent them from being good networks.

Remove Regulatory Protection

Fortunately, nothing like that needs to happen.

At the moment, Facebook, Twitter, and other such companies enjoy the legal status of neutral platforms. In this way, they’re like AT&T and Verizon. They’re not responsible for third-party content, so they can’t be sued because a third party commits libel on their platform.

That would be fair if they really were neutral — if they treated posts and tweets the way Verizon and AT&T treat phone calls or text messages. But they’re not. As a result, they get to have their cake and eat it too. All because of the Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It mandates that “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.”

Section 230 needs to be tweaked so that non-neutral services don’t benefit from its regulatory cover.

This was a good rule at the time. It allowed internet and social media companies to thrive. But Congress designed it for genuinely open platforms. Most of the current players have long since become something else. 2020 has just exposed what they’ve become. Congress should tweak Section 230 so that non-neutral services don’t benefit from its regulatory cover.

Tech companies would then have to choose: Either act like a neutral platforms by allowing anyone to post legal content or lose this legal privilege. In the latter case, government would treat them as publishers that are legally liable for what’s posted on their platforms.

One criticism of this approach is that, if government treats, say, Twitter or Facebook as publishers, they would control even more content than they do now. That’s true. But it would also mean that they would lose market share to competitors who will provide the service they refuse to provide. At the moment, they benefit from their legal status as dominant, neutral platforms, while acting as biased political publishers.

If forced to make the choice, these companies may find they prefer the advantage of neutrality. And if they don’t, then let them face real competition.

 

Jay W. Richards, Douglas Axe, and William Briggs are the authors of The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe.

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