There is no pastime more beloved by Congress than beating up on social media executives. On Wednesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee engaged in yet another round of fact-free histrionics as they thunderously denounced four tech CEOs—Meta's Mark Zuckerberg, X's Linda Yaccarino, Snapchat's Evan Spiegel, and Discord's Jason Citron—for a litany of allegedly unsafe business practices.
Attending the committee meeting were the parents of several young people who tragically took their own lives after being scammed or bullied on social media; as such, the proceedings felt very much like a trial in which the CEOs—Zuckerberg, in particular—stood accused of literal child murder.
Many of the Senate's anti-tech crusaders were present, including Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ted Cruz (Texas), and Josh Hawley (Mo.), and Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) wasn't there, though she received several favorable shout-outs from the Republicans. Indeed, both sides of the political aisle were exceedingly pleased with themselves for acting in bipartisan fashion to wildly accuse four business leaders of complicity in despicable crimes against children.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider that Hawley prompted Zuckerberg to apologize to the families in the audience, and then faulted him for refusing to pay them damages from his personal fortune.
"Have you compensated the victims?" Hawley demanded.
There are two big problems with the senators' approach: who they see as the villains, and what they see as the solutions. Let's start with the first part.
First, it's worth scrutinizing the harms being alleged here. The purpose of the hearing was to explore social media platforms' efforts to combat child sexual abuse material (CSAM) and online exploitation more generally. Of course, all major social media platforms already prohibit CSAM and cooperate with law enforcement to identify and remove abusers. As Zuckerberg patiently explained, Facebook has made millions of reports to law enforcement and child advocacy organizations, and uses AI tools to automatically detect and eliminate abuse.
"We take down anything that we think is sexual abuse material," said Zuckerberg at the hearing.
The social media platforms represented at the hearing all work tirelessly to eliminate CSAM. What critics are really alleging is that despite these efforts, some users of social media—including underage children and teenagers—still fall prey to pernicious behavior from sexual predators, scammers, and bullies. Take the example of Gavin Guffey, whose tragic death was referenced by Graham in his opening remarks. At age 17, Guffey fell victim to a sextortion scheme: A con artist tricked Guffey into sending sexual images of himself on Instagram, and then demanded compensation in exchange for keeping them private. Guffey eventually killed himself.
This is an appalling crime, and should be treated as such. In response, the victim's father—Brandon Guffey, a South Carolina state representative—sponsored legislation to strengthen the law as it applies to sexual blackmail of a minor. Predators who engage in fraud, blackmail, and sexual manipulation should absolutely be held accountable for their crimes.
But the perpetrator of these crimes is not Mark Zuckerberg, or Linda Yaccarino, or any other tech executive. The perpetrator is the person who blackmailed Guffey; anyone trying to move the accountability spotlight to the platform itself is engaged in blame-shifting, in service of an agenda that is pro-regulation and pro-censorship. (More on that in a minute.)
In other contexts, the fact that Facebook itself is not to blame would be obvious. In 2010, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi killed himself after his roommate secretly recorded him having sex with another male student. This became a big national story—understandably—and the roommate, Dharun Ravi, was prosecuted and convicted for invasion of privacy. Nobody thought the webcam company was at fault.
Many Republicans intuitively understand this principle when it comes to other subjects. Indeed, the GOP generally takes the position that if one person shoots another person, the victim ought not to sue the gun manufacturer. Guns don't kill people, people do is a common maxim of Second Amendment supporters—and in my view, they're right!
But when it comes to social media—where the extent of the harm to young people is not in any meaningful way settled, and in fact routinely exaggerated—many Republicans are marching in lockstep with their Democratic colleagues. At the hearing, Graham echoed the exact rhetoric of Democrats, accusing Zuckerberg and the others of having "blood on your hands." Of course, Graham is far from the first political figure to make this exact claim: In July 2021, President Joe Biden accused Zuckerberg of literally "killing people" because Facebook and Instagram had not done more to purge content that was critical of COVID-19 mandates.
That's the broader agenda of both the Democratic and Republican parties: greater government control over social media content.
In order to obtain this control, senators from both parties have sponsored legislation to repeal or reform Section 230, the federal statute that protects internet companies from some liability. Section 230 was a frequent punching bag at the Wednesday hearing.
"For the past 30 years, Section 230 has remained largely unchanged, allowing Big Tech to grow into the most profitable industry in the history of capitalism without fear of liability for unsafe practices," said Durbin. "That has to change."
Graham was even more explicit, calling on Congress to repeal Section 230 altogether. In the past, former President Donald Trump, Biden, Warren, Klobuchar, Cruz, Hawley, and other major political figures have all said similar things.
But without Section 230, free speech on social media would be fundamentally threatened. The reason that the platforms permit users to post content at will is Section 230, which establishes that the content in question is the responsibility of the user rather than the platform. If Facebook, Instagram, and X were liable for all the content that appeared in their feeds, they would have to vet it much more carefully. For one thing, this would dramatically increase the need for the platforms to engage in content moderation to protect themselves from libel lawsuits.
Does Graham really want that? Does Donald Trump? On the contrary, complaining that social media companies engage in too much moderation is a standard conservative talking point—and there's merit to it. As revealed by independent investigations like Matt Taibbi's Twitter Files and Reason's Facebook Files, those platforms censored contrarian content about elections and COVID-19 at the federal government's behest. Republicans were rightly outraged. Killing or even limiting Section 230 plays directly into the hands of the would-be censors.
There's much more to say on this subject than I have room for in this newsletter. (But if you're interested, you should order my book, Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn't Fear Facebook in the Future.) Suffice it to say that we should certainly have compassion for people who were victimized on social media, and we should continue to explore methods of detoxifying the platforms. But the agenda of the Senate Judiciary Committee is not the protection of children—it's greater control over dissident speech. Don't fall for it.
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