U.S. Senate fumbles with Facebook, fairness and free speech


Let’s just assume that the rumors are true. Imagine a world in which Facebook actively promoted liberal stories and suppressed conservative ones. Let’s go a step further and assume the private companies that constitute “the liberal media” have the organizational capacity, resources and motivation to bias our cultural narrative against people who love the Second Amendment, hate abortion, want to reduce government spending and love Jesus.

I would still say—get over it.

None of us is entitled to a media echo chamber of our choosing. The same is true for liberals as well as conservatives. In fact, we’re far better off when we actually are confronted with alternative views we might not like.

That’s why the freedoms of speech and the press are woven into the foundational fabric of America. The Supreme Court has generally permitted certain time, place and manner restrictions on speech, but it has zealously protected the content.

Our ability to communicate freely without government oversight is one of the most meaningful indicators of liberty in American society.

We literally just finished a battle to stop the rebirth of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “Fairness Doctrine” that required broadcasters to present contentious public issues in a manner the FCC deemed fair and balanced. Until the doctrine was repealed during the Reagan administration, the FCC evaluated whether a broadcast licensee had acted “reasonably and in good faith to present a fair cross-section of opinion on the controversial issue.”

I shouldn’t need to explain why it’s a bad idea for federal bureaucrats to decide media “fairness.”  We don’t need government speech police when the target is Facebook or MSNBC any more than we need it with Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.

Sen. John Thune, R-N.D., knows that. Assessing efforts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, he noted: “I believe that the marketplace of ideas only operates for the benefit of citizens if it is just that: a true marketplace.” But he didn’t stop there. “I believe it is dangerous for Congress and federal regulators to wade into the public airwaves to determine what opinions should be expressed and what kind of speech is ‘fair.'”

But in recent days, pursuant to the oversight authority of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Thune wants to know if “Facebook news curators…manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section, either by targeting news stories related conservative views for exclusion or by injecting non-trending content.”

Thune attempts to couch his inquiry as a matter of Facebook potentially misleading the public, but it feels a lot like he’s trying to ensure conservatives get “fair” air time on a private company’s media platform. To put the shoe on another foot, imagine if a Democratic senator sent a letter to Fox News requesting the channel justify that its content is “fair and balanced.” Do we really want to start playing this game?

As someone who makes a lot of conservative arguments, I’d love for Facebook and other media platforms to give my work fair treatment, but the government shouldn’t force them to do so. The platforms don’t belong to the government or me; they belong to private companies. If I don’t like it, I’m under no obligation to use Facebook at all—a decision that would undoubtedly reduce the reach of any content I produce.

Facebook is a tremendously influential purveyor of information, but we’re in dangerous territory again when government is weighing how, when and why the company delivers content. Just about everyone supports free speech; we simply need to make sure we know what it means.


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