Social Media Platform Bias: It’s Their Right, But...

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have de-platformed some (most notably, Donald Trump) and have been censoring the posts of others. Google has adjusted their “search algorithms” so that left-leaning results dominate sources from the political right. I’ve seen a lot of people who lean toward limited government support government intervention to limit the bias those platforms seem to show (most recently, here), but doing so would be a mistake. It would shift to government the power that these dominant social media platforms now have.

Google, Facebook, and the others are private companies and people voluntarily choose to use their services. Freedom-loving people should not advocate interfering with those voluntary relationships. If people dislike using those platforms because of their biases, they have the right to start their own. People of a certain age will remember when Myspace was the dominant social media platform, only to be displaced by Facebook.

In the short run, alternatives are limited. Google, Facebook, and others gained their market dominance because of their reputations for lack of bias. Looking for something? Google it and you’ll find it. But if people begin perceiving that their searches are biased, they can use other search engines. Want to interact on line with your friends? Use Facebook. But if people begin perceiving Facebook as biased, that opens the opportunity for competing social media platforms.

That’s the freedom-oriented way to deal with companies when people perceive problems with their product offerings. To advocate government intervention is to advocate replacing freedom of choice in the market with government control of the flow of information. Does anybody really think that government control of information would lessen bias compared with free market competition?

Yes, it takes time for alternatives to establish themselves after people perceive problems with the status quo, but the “creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter saw in capitalism will provide alternatives when consumers want them. Let the market work rather than clamoring for government intervention.

While some social media platforms seem to be leaning decidedly left, there is still a lot of information available from the right, starting with talk radio and Fox News. Don’t like what you’re getting on Facebook? See what Tucker Carlson has to say.

That said, social media platforms are trying to have it both ways in taking responsibility for the content on their platforms. On the one hand, they say that they are merely the platforms for people who are posting content, and as platform providers are not responsible for what appears on their platforms. On the other hand, they are actively determining what appears on their platforms, in the same way that newspapers decide what stories to run or television networks decide their programming.

They are taking responsibility, and then saying they are not responsible.

The arguments those platforms make for escaping legal liability for their content hinges on their being open platforms. People can say what they want, and they are responsible for their speech. But if the platforms are actively deciding who can speak, and if some of what they say can be censored, then the platforms are actively taking responsibility for their content, and should be held liable for that responsibility that they have voluntarily assumed.

Either, they are open platforms and people can say what they want, making contributors responsible for what they say, or they are managing what can appear on their platforms, making the platforms themselves responsible for what appears on them.

Can social media platforms really say they are not responsible for what appears on their platforms, when in fact they are taking the responsibility of determining what constitutes suitable content?

Keep government out of regulating social media platforms, but make them assume responsibility for their actions. If they determine what content can appear on their platforms, they should be responsible and legally liable for that content, just like a newspaper or television station.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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