Will Facebook have any value left by the time politicians get around to breaking it up?
That's one cheeky takeaway from the recently renamed Meta's record-shattering one-day market valuation loss Thursday of $250 billion after a share price plunge of 26.4 percent, triggered by news that Mark Zuckerberg's social media colossus had for the first time declined in users.*
There is a longstanding pattern in the way that the biggest of Big Business and Big Politics intersect: Company gets huge, politicians critical of the company get elected, then several years of high-profile rhetorical clashes ensue. When either Congress or regulators finally get around to reaching for the stick, executives are almost begging to get smacked, because their market share has already begun the long descent, and some well-placed regulatory capture could artificially lock in some gains. As always, the spectacle proves a boon to lawyers, flacks, populists, and Georgetown realtors.
For the long decades before former President Donald Trump refashioned Republican Party attitudes toward regulation, antitrust enforcement—especially in the media sphere—was largely in remission. There were equal parts Democratic and Republican fingerprints on the deregulations of 1975–85; conservatives considered economic decontrol a core principle, and "third-way" liberals of the Bill Clinton stripe were eager to be seen as friendly toward corporate America.
Those traditions have been irritably brushed aside in our post-2015 illiberal moment, as successive administrations now have banged the antitrust drum, while a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers scrambles over each other's microphones to more loudly scapegoat Big Tech.
On Tuesday, in a piece that drew surprisingly few headlines, Yahoo Finance interviewed progressive darling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.), who reiterated her calls to break up Facebook, making in the process this wildly inflated claim and assertion of authority:
There are some things that the United States provides that are welcome….There are also things that we want the United States to stop exporting, and one of those things is disinformation—disinformation through U.S.-founded companies like Facebook that have absolutely slowed and frankly sabotaged the global effort to fight against the coronavirus.
Given First Amendment constraints and the dispersed information architecture of the internet, Congress is no more likely to stop the export of "disinformation" (however ill-defined) than it is to stop the sun from rising in the east. But maximalist hyperbole about social media wickedness has also proven increasingly popular in the executive branch, where Big Tech's regulators lie in wait.
President Joe Biden made the startling, evidence-free claim last year that social media companies were "killing people." His surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, launched a "whole-of-society" campaign to combat COVID-19 lies, including "appropriate legal and regulatory measures that address health misinformation." White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked Tuesday about Spotify's decision to add advisory warnings to podcasts discussing pandemic policy, reinforced the federal government's keen and ongoing interest in monitoring the content of coronavirus news and commentary.
"Our hope is that all major tech platforms—and all major news sources, for that matter—be responsible and be vigilant to ensure the American people have access to accurate information on something as significant as COVID-19. And that certainly includes Spotify," Psaki said. "So, this disclaimer—it's a positive step. But we want every platform to continue doing more to call out…mis- and disinformation, while also uplifting accurate information….Our view is…it's a good step, it's a positive step, but there's more that can be done."
When government officials with the power to shape and enforce regulations make repeated, insistent-sounding suggestions to social media companies that they take a more proactive role in policing user content for what those officials consider to be "misinformation," then those social media companies tend to take a more proactive role in policing user content for what those officials consider "misinformation."
As Reason's Jacob Sullum pointed out last year, "given the federal government's power to make life difficult for Facebook et al., the line between a request and a command is hazy, and so is the line between private content moderation and government censorship."
With the federal government and public health apparatus currently managed by paternalistic Democrats, private content moderation choices have uncannily resembled paternalistic Democratic preferences.
YouTube last summer suspended Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) for one week for saying that most cloth masks are ineffective at stopping the spread—a claim that at the time went against the official recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but that has recently become CDC gospel. Facebook for nearly five months in 2021 banned anyone touting the "lab leak" origin story of COVID-19; that ban was dropped after government officials belatedly started taking the lab leak hypothesis seriously. Twitter last summer booted off prominent vaccine/mitigation critic and Alex Berenson, with the alleged final "misleading" straw being Berenson's contention that the vaccine
doesn't stop infection. Or transmission. Don't think of it as a vaccine. Think of it—at best—as a therapeutic with a limited window of efficacy and terrible side effect profile that must be dosed IN ADVANCE OF ILLNESS. And we want to mandate it? Insanity.
Within months, the omicron variant would demonstrate that the vaccine indeed does not "stop" (though it does slow, and significantly limit the seriousness of) infection or transmission.
You don't have to squint to notice the commonalities here. Noisy skeptics outside the political-class tent (including Bjorn Lomborg, John Tierney, and John Stossel!) get ticketed and even bounced for COVID-19 "misinformation" that later turns out to be at least partially accepted by some of the same people who cheer on their ostracization. Even as governmental public health types repeatedly misrepresented science on masking, testing, reopening, transmission, and much else besides. As Reason's Robby Soave argued last year, "No issue has exposed the one-sidedness of the anti-misinformation drive as thoroughly as the pandemic."
One-sidedness in public health messaging and journalism is corrosive to effective pandemic mitigation, degrading trust in ostensibly neutral expert institutions, and elevating partisanship at or near the top of predictors as to what policy makers and the public alike will prefer. Democratic-heavy polities disproportionately closed schools, restricted businesses, imposed vaccine/mask mandates…and got vaccinated. Republican-heavy areas admirably kept life open but also produced some of the most woeful vaccination rates in the industrialized world.
But there's a commonality in the populist strains on either side aiming their big guns at Big Tech. It isn't comparative centrists like Sens. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) and Kyrsten Sinema (D–Ariz.) aiming their guns at social media companies and Section 230; it's populist lefties like AOC and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), along with populist righties like Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.). One side blames Big Tech for tipping the election in 2020 (by suppressing reporting about Hunter Biden's sleaze, among other sins); the other side IDs the same villain for 2016 (in collusion with Russia, Cambridge Analytica, whoever).
As Elizabeth Nolan Brown put it in a Reason cover story last year,
The new antitrust push allows Republicans to tap into their base's techno-panic, to peddle a narrative of victimization at the hands of cultural elites, and to throw a bone to the populist component of the GOP coalition. Meanwhile, antitrust allows Democrats to tap into long-harbored fears about corporations, to appear to be sticking up for the little guy in a way that pleases the party's left wing (without having to accomplish more politically difficult tasks, such as passing Medicare for All), and to lay the groundwork for greater government involvement in economic affairs more generally.
I would add one more pathology the two ostensibly populist sides have in common: a deep and condescending distrust of what the little people out there might do with all this newfangled information flying to and from their screens. If you think election-tipping masses of Americans can be swayed by the algorithmic settings and/or conscious knob twiddling (or lack thereof) from a bunch of nerds in Menlo Park, then you are portraying Zuckerberg as the shepherd, and relegating his (now-declining) user base as sheep.
This fear has arguably provided a thick slab on the base of communications theory and journalistic navel gazing since at least 1938, when Orson Welles beamed the real-sounding alien invasion fiction The War of the Worlds across the then-novel distribution network of radio. Though the infamous listener panic you've probably heard of was almost totally mythical (as Reason's Jesse Walker details in his classic 2013 essay, "America the Paranoid"), the elite panic about the sheep being manipulated by clever new-media propagandists was real, and has never quite left us:
The prominent political commentator Walter Lippmann took the opportunity to warn against "crowds that drift with all the winds that blow, and are caught up at last in the great hurricanes," adding that those "masses without roots" and their "volcanic and hysterical energy" are "the chaos in which the new Caesars are born." As Socolow wrote, the legend of the Mars panic "cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists—or incendiary demagogues—could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation."
To capture consciousness: what a chilling image. It's an idea that appears when dissidents warn that our leaders are using the mass media to brainwash us. But you can also find the fear among those leaders themselves, who have a long history of fretting over the influence of any new medium of communication. If Orson Welles was cast as a wizard with the power to cloud men's minds, his listeners were imagined as a mindless mob easily misled by a master manipulator.
Such fears were only turbocharged after the devastation wrought by presumed communications wizard Adolf Hitler, a trauma that led directly to an elitist, post-war journalistic/academic revolt against the populist excesses of pre-war media, enshrined in an enduringly influential (if initially mocked) 1947 Commission on Freedom of the Press. As I recounted in a magazine column last year,
At the heart of the project was a paternalistic disgust that consumers were choosing media wrong, that press barons were building fortunes by pandering to base tastes, and that, as a result, the American experiment of self-government was being undermined from within. The media "can spread lies faster and farther than our forefathers dreamed when they enshrined the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to our Constitution," the report's authors lamented. "The press can be inflammatory, sensational, and irresponsible. If it is, it and its freedom will go down in the universal catastrophe."
I do not believe that Americans are essentially lumpen sleeper agents, vulnerable to being activated by the wicked manipulations of profiteering media pioneers. Seems to me that the remarkable proliferation of consumer media choice, including the all-important ability to create and self-curate content, greatly diffuses the risk of a singular Oz figure hypnotizing the hordes into destroying democracy. Indeed, the very idea that "democracy" is under threat from the democratization of media seems to contain an important contradiction.
But the partisan purpose that such media theorizing accomplishes is undeniable: You get to blame a big, bad Other for an unhappy outcome that might just have come on your watch.
"Look, the unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices," Biden said in his big speech about the omicron variant in December. "But those choices have been fueled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media. You know, these companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters. It's wrong, it's immoral, and I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it. Stop it now."
If Biden truly cared about COVID-19 misinformation, he would better monitor his own mouth, and the ever-slippery messaging from his public health apparatus, rather than continuing to nag Big Tech into censorship by proxy. In the meantime, the rest of us can help bolster informational resilience by at least waiting a beat or two before cheering on the latest blatantly partisan deplatforming exercise. Have a little faith that your countrymen are at least somewhere up on the evolutionary chain from sheep.
* CORRECTION: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Facebook reported a fourth quarter loss.