Big Tech firms Facebook, Twitter and Amazon have managed to provide plenty of ammunition in the past week for those who accuse them of using their colossal market dominance to unfairly tilt the political and cultural conversation.
We can start with the most egregious example: The decision by Twitter and Facebook to suspend the accounts of anyone who tried to retweet or post a New York Post story about the relationship between corrupt Ukrainian energy firm Burisma and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The list of accounts suspended included those belonging to the New York Post itself; White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany; and the Team Trump reelection campaign.
Twitter executives explained that the social media company was suspending the accounts because the information in The New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s emails was based on “hacked material.” But that was a rationale that neither fit the facts nor precedent.
The emails that were the basis of the newspaper story were not hacked or stolen. The Post reported that the emails came from a repairman working on a laptop he says he assumed had been abandoned by its owner.
And Twitter’s actions were not consistent with its past conduct. The social media giant did not interfere with the dissemination of other news stories from other news organizations that were based on hacked or leaked emails.
Facebook decided to do something similar to the action by Twitter in dealing with people trying to circulate The New York Post story.
The New York Post is not Alex Jones. It has the fourth-largest print circulation of any newspaper in the country. Suspending its account looked very much like a sneak attack on the First Amendment, as does suspending the account of Politico reporter Jake Sherman. And suspending the Trump campaign’s account seemed to many observers like blatant interference in the election process.
As outrage swept over the Internet, Twitter promised to rescind its policy, but still hasn’t released the Post’s account.
It’s rare for two social media giants to make such a blatant and coordinated move against their own self-interest. Their actions directly undermine the rationale for Facebook’s and Twitter’s exemption under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields them from any liability for content that appears on their sites.
The exemption is built on the assumption — fiercely defended by Facebook and Twitter — that the sites serve as neutral platforms and are not editors of content like the publishers of books, magazines and newspapers. Such publications are not exempt from liability for what they publish.
Now many people refuse to believe the claim of the social media companies that is the basis for their exemption.
As a result, we should expect efforts in Congress to redraw the Section 230 rules to allow parties to sue the social media giants when posts the sites publish are libelous or personally damaging. Starting this week, Twitter and Facebook will need to put a lot more lawyers on their payrolls.
The second blunder was Amazon’s decision not to release the documentary “What Killed Michael Brown,” written and narrated by the noted African American scholar Shelby Steele.
The documentary consists largely of interviews with African Americans. It casts a very different light on fatal police shooting of Brown, who was Black, in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The shooting triggered nationwide riots and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Steele examined the misconceptions and outright untruths surrounding the shooting of Brown.
Amazon clearly decided that a look at American race relations that defied the usual Groupthink was too hot to handle, and so refused to release the documentary on its streaming service.
With breathtaking hubris, Amazon informed Steele and his filmmaker son that “this decision may not be appealed.” It’s not hard to read into Amazon’s action a desire to suppress an unwelcome message — and the brandishing of a political bias that be very costly to Amazon in the future.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been the main congressional point person pushing for a breakup of Big Tech — including Facebook, Twitter and Amazon.
If Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is elected president, Warren will no doubt try to legislate her wish. If leaders of the social media giants think Republicans or free-market conservatives will charge to their rescue, they might want to think again.
There is a powerful double-shame hovering over the events of last week.
The first is that the case for exempting the social media platforms from Section 230 is strong. Under ideal circumstances the exemption serves to further the free exchange of expression and discourse as public goods in a free and open society. But by acting as they did, these companies have put their defenders — including me — on the defensive.
The second cause for shame is that these companies — and all of Big Tech — command huge resources of capital, data, innovative energy, and individual talent that could be supporting open and honest public debate of important issues, not undermining or suppressing debate.
Last week was a big week for Big Tech, no doubt. It was also a bad week for America.
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