Social media vs. the Senate.

Is there an anti-conservative bias?
Isaac Saul Oct 29, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes

Social media CEOs testify in front of the Senate. Plus, is a third-party candidate a good thing?

A screenshot of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during yesterday’s hearing.

Reader feedback.

Wendy from Austin, Texas, wrote in about the reader question on single-issue voting and abortion. She said "I would 100% change my vote to Biden if he came out as pro-life. I have voted both Republican and Democratic in the 4 elections (now 5) I have been able to vote. I vote on character and issues. Trump's character is obviously questionable at best and heinous at worst, but the media protecting/silencing any democratic character flaws and exacerbating Republican ones is maddening…

I am someone who wants gun reform (saves lives), wants fewer troops being deployed (saves lives), wants accessible health care (saves lives), desires help for immigrants and the poor (saves lives), but abortion is the sticking point for so many Christians including me. I just can't understand why people who also want these things (abundant life accessible to all) won't also protect the most vulnerable of all these groups: babies with a beating heart. They are never given a chance. If a Democratic candidate would move on that issue, I think he or she would get the votes of many of the Christian Americans who believe in loving how Jesus did social justice — believing all of us were created beautifully and loved equally in God's sight and believe wholeheartedly that Jesus asked us to protect the poor and vulnerable — babies are at the forefront of many minds.”


Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court will allow longer deadlines for absentee ballots to be counted in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Republicans in both states fought the extensions, and new Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in either case’s ruling.
  2. The author of “Anonymous,” the 2018 op-ed and book, was revealed yesterday as Miles Taylor, a former Homeland Security official. Media critics lambasted The New York Times for describing Taylor as a “senior administration official” in his viral op-ed, given his limited role in the administration.
  3. The U.S. economy grew at 7.4% in the third quarter, recovering about two-thirds of the gross domestic product (the value of all goods and services produced across the country) lost during the pandemic.
  4. Amid a record surge of early voting, there are still millions of absentee ballots that have not been returned, according to The Washington Post. With election day a week away, 42 million of the 92 million requested ballots from voters had not been returned. Tuesday was the last day postal and election administration experts said the ballots could be mailed to ensure delivery by Election Day.
  5. In the week before Election Day, coronavirus cases have surged to an all-time high, guaranteeing that COVID-19 will be the most prominent issue for voters in America, Axios reports.
  6. BONUS: Just a week after the two candidates vying to be Utah’s next governor did a joint advertisement calling for unity, Minnesota’s former governors did the same. The four living former Minnesota governors sat for an advertisement encouraging people to vote — and to be civil to each other — in 2020:

What D.C. is talking about.

Social media and conservative bias. Yesterday, the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook, and Google (which owns YouTube) testified before the United States Senate. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai have spent the years since 2016 trying to implement policies that they think will slow the spread of misinformation while ramping up the moderation of their platforms. At the same time, the platforms have faced accusations of having conservative bias and members of Congress have disagreed about how to tackle the issue.

One particularly fraught issue is Section 230, a law passed in 1996 that shields internet platforms from liability for user-generated content and also gives them “wide latitude to control what appears on their platforms,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. In other words: users are responsible for what they post, not the platforms allowing their post to go up. If you post something defamatory on Facebook, you can get sued — but Facebook can’t. At the same time, the platforms can also remove or label any posts or users as they see fit.

Both Republicans and Democrats attacked Section 230 — Republicans claimed it was being selectively implemented to censor the right while Democrats argued it protects the platforms from being held liable when they allow misinformation to be spread unchecked. While the hearing was supposed to be about Section 230, it quickly devolved into questions about the 2020 presidential election. Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) used the hearing to attack Twitter’s Jack Dorsey for blocking the link to The New York Post story about Hunter Biden, which Tangle covered here. Democrats, meanwhile, tried to press the CEOs into promising they would be on guard against foreign meddling in the election.

Here, we’ll examine some of the arguments being made about these social media companies and the impact of Section 230.


Agreed.

There is a lot of overlap about how Congress views these companies and Section 230. Both Sen. Cruz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), for instance, called Google the most powerful company in the world and said there needed to be some changes. Each side seems open to paring back or repealing Section 230, though they want to attack different parts of the law for different reasons.


What the right is saying.

The right has accused Twitter, Facebook and YouTube of anti-conservative bias and argues that their recent policies are designed to hurt conservative politicians and conservatives online.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called it a “depressing spectacle,” saying Democrats “cheered on politicized social media censorship” while Republicans “missed opportunities to make a case for why robust political exchange is in the interest of all Americans.”

“Some Senators did effectively puncture the fiction that Twitter censors in good faith without regard to political ideology,” it wrote. “Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker pointed out that Twitter took two months to add a warning label to Chinese propaganda suggesting the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to China. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner compared Twitter’s tolerance for the Iranian Ayatollah’s violent tweets with its lavish regulation of the U.S. President’s account…

“You know American civics education has failed when those baying for political controls on citizens’ expression claim to be champions of democracy,” the board added. “Yes, it’s important that false statements be identified. Political campaigns have always been a collection of truths and half-truths, and journalists and the American people generally work it out.”

In Newsweek, Will Chamberlain argued that the Justice Department’s proposed revisions to Section 230 should be implemented.

“Section 230 ‘works’ only to the extent that it gives tech platforms carte blanche to run their platforms unconstrained by tort law,” he wrote. “In the early days of the internet, that was defensible, to create space for innovation, experimentation—and even protection. But social media is now a mature market, and Section 230's liability shield now does more to foster censorship than anything else. The shield also acts as a sword—giving tech giants the power to censor certain speakers using arbitrarily applied and unexplained community standards. It is time for Congress to pass legislation that reforms Section 230 and protects Americans' right to speak freely online without fear of exclusion from public discourse.”

“DOJ's proposal revises Section 230(c)(2)(A) to narrow the range of removable content,” he said. “This means that platforms would no longer have total discretion to remove merely ‘objectionable’ content. Second, it would require that platforms have an ‘objectively reasonable belief’ that the content is removable. Third, the DOJ's proposed revisions define what ‘good faith’ means in the context of content moderation. For the platforms to be understood as acting in ‘good faith,’ DOJ's definition would require them to abide by their own terms of service, refrain from restricting access to material on pretextual or deceptive grounds, apply their terms of service evenly and provide notice to anyone whose content the platform wishes to remove.”

“There are few serious proposals to repeal Section 230 outright,” he concluded. “That approach would indeed make social media platforms more likely to censor content. But reforming Section 230 along the lines that the DOJ has proposed would incentivize platforms to adopt fair terms of service, apply those terms consistently and think long and hard before banning users for lawful speech. Our political discourse, and the health of our democracy, would be better because of it.”


What the left is saying.

The left wants Big Tech to moderate disinformation in a more targeted way, but does not want to change Section 230 in a way that makes users less liable for what they post. In Slate, Danielle Keats Citron and Spencer Overton argued that Wednesday’s hearing was “about helping Trump on election day.” Overton and Citron contended that the hearing “will discourage tech companies from combating disinformation at a mission-critical time.” The authors summarized the many instances where misinformation, especially from foreign accounts, has been spread on Facebook to suppress or intimidate Black voters.

“The real threat to American democracy is not ‘censorship’ of conservative perspectives on social networks, but coordinated disinformation campaigns, both domestic and foreign, that sow division, confusion, and distrust,” they wrote. “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives social media companies the power to filter, block, and remove information that is ‘obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” without risk of legal liability… The First Amendment stands as a check against government censorship. It doesn’t restrict private entities, which themselves have free speech rights. As non state actors, tech companies have the freedom and, crucially, the power to respond to disinformation that could result in voter suppression…

“To be sure, Facebook, Google, and Twitter need to do a better job of protecting democracy. They need to consistently enforce their policies (including against politicians) and to provide more transparency about the enforcement and effectiveness of their policies and about coordinated disinformation campaigns. But those challenges should be addressed in a serious and comprehensive manner in 2021—not in a politically charged hearing less than a week before Election Day.”

In Bloomberg, Joe Nocera said there were “reasonable answers” to the questions Republicans posed about why fewer liberals were being “censored” or “labeled” on these social media platforms. “Liberals don’t get fact-checked as much as Trump because his tweets are often not just untrue but, when the subject is Covid-19, genuinely harmful,” Nocera said. “And while Dorsey said it was a mistake for Twitter to have blocked the New York Post story — and the decision was reversed within 24 hours — the real reason, as Zuckerberg explained, was that the FBI had warned the social media companies to be on the lookout for a ‘hack and leak’ operation close to the election.”

In Vox, Shirin Ghaffary fact-checked the Republican claims of conservative censorship.

“On the whole, data shows that conservative content thrives on social media,” she wrote. “Conservative pundits like Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro consistently rank among the most shared news sources on Facebook… And despite all the hoopla about Twitter’s alleged censoring of Trump, the president still uses the platform every day to reach tens of millions more followers than Joe Biden does… Republican senators asked why tech companies haven’t fact-checked high-profile Democratic leaders like Biden as much as they have Trump, but they ignored the very obvious answer: that Trump, unlike Biden, has more frequently promoted false and misleading statements on social media.”


My take.

Generally speaking, free speech is one of those issues I fall more to the right on. I’m fearful of the political environment we live in right now — one where the president, many on the left and various members of Congress seem more interested in finding ways to silence their opponents than win them over with compelling arguments. The good news, though, is that this conversation has very little to do with free speech, and the framing of it as such is missing the point.

First, I very much enjoyed Chamberlain’s article in Newsweek. I found it convincing. He’s right: Section 230 existed before Twitter, Facebook or Google even existed. It was put in place because the federal government understood that it couldn’t possibly regulate early social media platforms, and it didn’t want those platforms to be liable for their content and never be able to grow and thrive. To that extent, the law worked, and today the platforms most of us enjoy exist because the government created an environment where they could grow and thrive unencumbered. Some small revisions to Section 230 that push these platforms to enforce their own policies more evenly would probably be a good thing. Repealing it (as the president has called for) would only lead to more censorship, because the companies would be forced to moderate everything more strictly to protect themselves. Chamberlain seems to get that, and I hope Congress pursues some revisions — after this election.

But Chamberlain also falls for the trap from the right. It bears repeating that “censorship” and “free speech” do not apply to a platform whose terms you are agreeing with in order to use. Again: the First Amendment is about protecting us from government censorship — not taking away power from privately-owned companies whose services we’re signing up for and agreeing to their terms to use. If you walk into a Wal-Mart and scream racist obscenities, you’re going to get kicked out, even though the abhorrent language is protected by the First Amendment. 140 million Americans shop at Wal-Mart every week. Roughly 80 million use Twitter in any given month. Nobody accuses Wal-Mart of censorship because such an allegation is absurd on its face. When you log into Twitter, you’re walking to the store — so you’re now playing by their rules.

It’s also frankly laughable for conservatives to claim one-sided censorship on platforms like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. Yes, many liberals have high-ranking positions at these places and have said horrible things about the right. I get that. But those platforms have obviously done more for the conservative movement in the last 10 years than pretty much anything else I can think of. Of the top 50 most popular political YouTube channels, you’ll see PragerU, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, Paul Joseph Watson, Mark Dice, The Daily Wire, Philip DeFranco — all accounts that range from very conservative to far-right — getting hundreds of millions of views while they sell their worldview.

Similarly, the top 10 posts on Facebook are always from conservative political pundits. I just looked, and the top 10 posts on Facebook right now — ranked by total interactions — include six from Dan Bongino, a Trump sycophant and far-right pundit. There’s one from David Harris Jr., a pro-Trump author who sells Trump paraphernalia on his website. One from Donald Trump himself. One from Fox News. And one from a Spanish language page called Dios Es Bueno (God is good). This is censorship? This is suppressing conservative voices? It’s like this — no joke — every single day. Social media has been a boon for the conservative movement, and especially for Trumpism. Claiming otherwise is to be detached from reality.

The best case for anti-conservative censorship is Twitter. And even there, the Belle of the Ball is President Donald Trump. Most Twitter activity is people on Twitter reacting to the president’s tweets. The president himself credits Twitter for how he won in 2016 and why he’s going to win again in 2020. Yes, Twitter made a huge mistake by blocking the link to the New York Post story last week — I wrote that here, twice, and expressed my disappointment about it (see above about my right-leanings on this issue). But Twitter has also since reversed the policy and apologized. The Post can retrieve their account by deleting the initial tweet and posting it again, as Twitter has told them repeatedly. That they haven’t seems to be proof The Post is more interested in martyrdom than tweeting — and that’s fine. I can admit it’s a clever public relations move. But it’s not as if Twitter hasn’t given them a simple avenue to unlock the account.

It’s also clear that these platforms are in a horrible spot, and I do not envy them. For instance, yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling about Pennsylvania ballots. An advisor to Trump’s campaign, apparently misunderstanding the ruling, tweeted that “Ballots received after Election Day will NOT be counted” in Pennsylvania. It got thousands of shares immediately, and Twitter slapped a label on the tweet that it was misleading. Conservatives, including the White House press secretary, cried “censorship.” What is Twitter supposed to do? I am in complete agreement with labeling a tweet like that — one that is spreading misinformation about when and how Pennsylvanians can vote — as being inaccurate. Because it is! And that’s the definition of good moderation. What they did with The New York Post story was not.


Blindspot report.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring stories from Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you the stories that folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

The right missed a story on massive protests in Poland against a near-total ban on abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation.

The left missed a story about how the State Department designated six Chinese media outlets as “foreign missions” that were spreading propaganda.

Fun note: half of the stories in this week’s Blindspot Report were covered in Tangle, meaning this newsletter is helping get you out of your bubble.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I was looking at a poll from Florida today and noticed that there were seven parties on the presidential ballot there. I looked into it and Vermont has a whopping 14! What is the psychology of those running as a third party, knowing that they will not win, and knowing that they may be hurting their own agendas by taking votes away from the candidate they are most similar to? You've written here about your opinions on the current Libertarian ticket but how do you feel about 3rd parties in general?

— Jonah, Philadelphia, PA

Tangle: For a lot of Americans, I think voting third-party is sort of similar to the political activism you see on any other issue. The question they’re asking themselves is: “if not now, when?” If you believe the two-party system is broken and that it’s fundamentally damaging our country (this is, by the way, something I also believe) then voting third-party to send a message is an important part of advancing that idea.

The issue here, as usual, is the seriousness of the candidates. You mentioned my coverage of Jo Jorgensen. As I wrote, I do not think she is running a serious campaign, nor do I take her running mate seriously, so she would never earn my vote in an election as consequential as this one. But more broadly, I would love to see the involvement of third-party candidates ramp up. I would have absolutely loved to see Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) actually follow through on his plans to run for president. It would have been great if he had launched his campaign this year in a more focused manner, because I think having him in the debates would have been really good for the country.

For me, the biggest issue with the system as it is now is that once the primaries are done, it’s simply about being better than the person you’re standing across from. For independents or third-party voters, it’s like wanting some wings and having to choose between barbecue or jerk chicken year after year after year when what you really want is buffalo style. And for many Americans who have been making that choice for decades, they have finally had enough and ordered the buffalo — even if they know they’re going to be eating alone, or maybe getting the barbecue anyway. Frankly, I respect that.

At the same time, the fact that third-party candidates have never really had a shot (since Ross Perot) creates an environment where those who run are rarely worth your vote. I did not think Gary Johnson had a compelling platform in 2016, and his gaffes made him even harder to take seriously. Jill Stein, the next most popular candidate in 2016, is not someone who had any qualifications that even approached making her up to snuff for the presidency. Hard pass.

What I would love to see is a mainstream, popular politician or political figure start building a coalition to run on right now for 2024. Most third-party candidates are hamstrung by the fact that they don’t get the Democratic or Republican Party support — which means way less money, fewer volunteers, fewer allies in the media, etc. The only way to stymie this, or level the playing field, would be if someone like Amash or Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard actually launched a campaign now, fundraising and working their messaging in the lead up to 2024. It would probably require them actually stepping out of government to execute.

Would any of those candidates ultimately earn my vote as third-party candidates? I don’t think so — but it’s not impossible. Both Amash and Sanders (who, admittedly, would be approximately 124 years old in four years) could probably convince me they are better options than Trump or Biden depending on what their platforms were and who they put around them.

All that’s to say that right now, I do not think the third-party candidates who are running are in it for much more than nominal fame, money and perhaps inroads for a future in mainstream politics. The “psychology” of it seems to be either “burn it all down” because I don’t care who wins the election, or “I understand running as a third-party candidate could get me some press which opens opportunities for other ventures.” I’m very cynical about the third party options this year, but I’d love to see a third-party challenger organize now and force a more diverse set of options for the 2024 elections.

Remember, you can ask a question too. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in.


A story that matters.

Negotiations on a coronavirus relief package appear to be dead. The House and Senate are both back home, and there are no signs that relief negotiations are moving forward before the election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a letter this morning asking Steve Mnuchin, negotiating on behalf of the White House, to send revised language addressing testing, treatment, state and local funding, child care and school funding, among other things. These are all the same issues on which the two sides have been unable to agree for the last few months. Mnuchin has apparently not offered any revisions — meaning they are nowhere close on a deal. In the meantime, millions of unemployed Americans are struggling and state budgets remain strained, all while both sides agree a second stimulus deal is needed.


Numbers.

  • 2.5%. The rate at which personal income fell in the third quarter with no government stimulus.
  • +7.5%.Joe Biden’s RCP national polling advantage with five days left to go before the presidential election. (Outcome: TBD)
  • +1.3%. Hillary Clinton’s RCP national polling advantage with five days left to go before the presidential election in 2016. (Outcome: +2.1)
  • +0.1%. Barack Obama’s RCP national polling advantage with five days left to go before the presidential election in 2012. (Outcome: +3.9)
  • +5.9%. Barack Obama’s RCP national polling advantage with five days left to go before the presidential election in 2008. (Outcome: +7.3)
  • +2.3%. George W. Bush’s RCP national polling advantage with five days left to go before the presidential election in 2004. (Outcome: +2.4)
  • ~2 million. The approximate number of Americans who voted in 2012, sat out in 2016, and have already cast a ballot in 2020.
  • 6. The number of battleground states (AZ, FL, GA, NC, NV, TX), where Black voters over the age of 65 have already exceeded their total 2016 turnout, according to election data analyst Tom Bonier.

See you tomorrow?

Everyone who signs up for Tangle gets Monday-Thursday editions for free. But only paying subscribers get Friday editions. Friday editions are typically more experimental, personal, or feature original reporting (interviews with people in politics) and deep dives. Tomorrow’s edition is going to be about going off the record — anonymity in the news and some fun stuff I’ve heard “off the record.” Subscribe below to get tomorrow’s edition — and if you want it but can’t afford the $4.16/month, let me know.

Subscribe now


Have a nice day.

The Duwamish River in South Seattle is visibly healing in front of the city’s eyes. In 2001, the river, which flows through Seattle’s industrial core, was considered one of the most toxic bodies of water in America. But after decades of clean-up efforts and community groups coming together to revive the river, it is now the cleanest it has been in 100 years, and wildlife is finally returning to the river’s waters and banks (though salmon never really left). “We can’t relax, we can’t stop,” James Rasmussen, former tribal council member and currently the Superfund manager for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, says. Like the river itself, “we have to keep moving.”

Comments

Only paid subscribers can comment.
Please subscribe or sign in to join the conversation.

Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.