Now even the supposed experts are coming up short on solutions. On Wednesday, Facebook’s Oversight Board — a panel of journalists, activists, free-speech scholars and others selected by the company to pass judgment about what flies and what doesn’t on the network — punted on its biggest decision to date, whether to reinstate Trump’s account. The board declined to undo Facebook’s Trump ban, but it also gave Facebook six months to issue clearer rules and make a final decision about Trump’s account status.
At first I was surprised by the non-decision decision, but soon it began to make sense. Lots of people understand the danger to our society of a media controlled by a handful of too-powerful billionaires. It is staggering, for instance, to consider how differently the last five years might have gone if Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey of Twitter had made slightly different programming decisions in the run-up to the 2016 election. Had Dorsey banned Trump’s tweets in 2015, might he have altered the course of history?
But the billionaires are wary of exercising such power, lest they further alarm a public already skittish about their reach. Politicians, meanwhile, can yell a lot but can’t do much; as private corporations with their own rights to free speech — guaranteed by a string of conservative Supreme Court decisions, among them Citizens United — social networks are free to run their sites however they please, and it’s hard to see any law that restricts these rights surviving constitutional review.
And if corporations and politicians aren’t going to solve the problem, what incentive is there for outside experts to issue firm edicts? It’s unsatisfactory, but I can see how punting was the wisest course for members of the Oversight Board.
Hawley is a graduate of Yale Law School, a former clerk to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and a former state attorney general. I had picked up his book to see if, amid the general hopelessness in these debates about online speech, he might have come up with novel ideas about how to address our plight.
Alas, he hasn’t. He spends a lot of time illustrating the power of tech companies, but his solutions are platitudinal — he writes that we should be “revitalizing antitrust legislation, ending the corporate giveaways, protecting our fundamental constitutional right to free speech, and revising our overall economic and social policy to put working people first.”
Well, OK, but how? Antitrust law has been gutted by many decades of jurisprudence by the very sort of conservative judges Hawley supports. “Corporate giveaways” — does Hawley mean the tax cuts that are his party’s answer to seemingly every economic problem? And how would any edict about what tech companies must do to police speech square with the “fundamental constitutional right to free speech” Hawley praises?