Politicians in both parties love to target  “big tech” and the new administration and its allies on Capitol Hill are wasting no time. This Thursday, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce will bring in the CEOs of major social media platforms to discuss misinformation and disinformation online. There are important questions to ask, and Congress has a role to play in exploring the problems inherent in our online ecosystem. But if the last hearing  with “big tech” CEOs was any indication, this could quickly turn into another political show, further driving the tension that these companies face and doing little to solve the core problems that plague our Republic.
But there’s a more sinister problem at the heart of this debate: What is a social media company to do when it is the politicians who spread misinformation on their platform?
Those in elected office only paint social media in two colors: They are either a tool that silences viewpoints , or complicit in the spread  of harmful, dangerous content. There is little middle ground, even as the ability to spread falsehoods is made easier by the very features of the internet we enjoy the most—widespread communication that is accessible and instantaneous.
The fact is that as technology companies work to create services that users enjoy and increasingly rely upon, they must moderate content. Sometimes this means removing speech; other times, vitriolic or hateful content spreads because it technically didn’t violate community guidelines. Then, like in our political system, people take sides, draw lines in the sand and describe much of what they disagree with in the frame of “with me or against me.”
These emotions played out and boiled over in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, with Trump supporters storming the U.S. Capitol. In the wake of the events, social media sat squarely in the sights  of the public as many of the events and groups used the internet to coordinate and plan. With this narrative, the solution focuses entirely on the companies themselves: how can we regulate behavior of these companies to prevent similar harms in the future?
But that question is fundamentally focused on a symptom, not the disease. The root cause of the January 6 attack was not moderation failures by tech companies, and no actions of theirs can address it. That root cause is the creation and spread of disinformation and misinformation by our very own politicians and public leaders.
So what is a technology company to do when those with the power to regulate, who have proven willing to use it or threaten frequently to, are the perpetrators?
Politicians have always had some liberties with the truth, but as norms  in the political sphere continue to degrade, things shift to a winner-takes-all mindset. All too often, this leads to deliberate falsehoods or emotionally charged exaggerations designed to spur support for a candidate or a specific issue, as the ends can justify the means. And history shows this isn’t a structural problem with social media, because it has happened throughout history.
In ancient Rome, for example, a failure to reach consensus on pressing issues allowed the Gracchi brothers to push opportunistically for policies in ways that breached the boundaries of acceptable behavior . As author Edward J. Watts put it , “[t]he quest for consensus that had made Rome’s republic so stable in previous centuries was quickly replaced by a winner-takes-all attitude toward political disputes.” This ultimately led to the first act of lethal political violence in three centuries, and less than a hundred years later, the republic was no more.
Obviously, social media played no part in the downfall of Rome, and yet the similarities between 130 B.C. and the modern day are clear. Our system of political discourse may seem sturdy, but as the norms we rely on continually degrade, the foundations continue to weaken. It is undoubtedly true that social media can be used as a tool to degrade these norms and institutions further, as information can be shared rapidly with relatively limited checks. However, just mere hours after the Capitol attack some legislators took to spreading false claims  about the role that ANTIFA played in the events. Social media isn’t creating the problem; our representatives are.
This leaves social media companies in a very difficult position. When a politician or public figure exaggerates a bit too wildly or steps over previous lines of acceptable behavior, social media platforms must decide whether the behavior complies with the terms of service. Either the platform will decide the content should remain online, allowing the message or behavior to spread amongst supporters, or they limit its spread and the ability for the people’s elected representatives and leaders to connect directly with their constituents.
It may seem like social media causes these problems, leading to a conclusion that increasing regulation to change incentives for moderation will limit potential harms. But many proposals for regulation perversely threaten to drive this wedge further; again driving toward a winner-take-all world where one side will win and one will lose. So long as our elected officials continue to drive the spread of falsehoods and misinformation, further degrading the institutional norms in favor of a winner takes all, social media will not solve the issue.
It can be politically expedient to attack big tech as the problem, but the real issues are much deeper and much more difficult to address. So long as we ignore them, we careen further toward the edge. Our institutions are only as strong as we make them, and we can’t fix these issues by finding a scapegoat in technology.
Image credit: Koshiro K
- “target”: https://techcrunch.com/2020/10/29/trump-hints-at-stopping-powerful-big-tech-in-latest-get-out-the-vote-tweet/
- “last hearing”: https://slate.com/technology/2020/07/antitrust-big-tech-hearing-apple-amazon-google-facebook.html
- “silences viewpoints”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2019/08/28/feature/a-conservative-senators-crusade-against-big-tech/
- “spread”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/31/technology/facebook-disinformation-nancy-pelosi.html
- “sights”: https://eshoo.house.gov/media/press-releases/following-attack-capitol-reps-eshoo-and-malinowski-lead-dozens-colleagues
- “norms”: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/09/gop-decay-of-political-norms/540165/
- “boundaries of acceptable behavior”: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/books/review/edward-j-watts-mortal-republic.html
- “put it”: https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/01/11/rome-america-edward-watts-mortal-republic
- “spreading false claims”: https://whnt.com/news/capitol-siege/rep-mo-brooks-blames-capitol-attack-on-fascist-antifa-says-need-to-fight-for-honest-accurate-elections/