Two quick self-promotional items: I went on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday with one of my sources for last week’s piece on Facebook moderators, and I encourage you to check it out. I’ll also be doing a Reddit Ask Me Anything on Tuesday at 9A PT / 12P ET; I’ll tweet the link when it’s available from my Twitter account.
Last week, freshman Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley — who is actively cultivating a reputation for being a hard-ass when it comes to regulating tech companies — unveiled a deeply misguided idea for promoting free speech on large tech platforms. Makena Kelly reported the details for The Verge:
Under Hawley’s “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” companies could be stripped of that immunity if they exhibit political bias, or moderate in a way that disadvantages a certain political candidate or viewpoint. [...]
Hawley’s bill would task the Federal Trade Commission with certifying that tech companies are approaching moderation in a neutral way, a requirement for any company with over 30 million monthly active users in the US, 300 million monthly active users globally, or $500 million in global revenue. Certification would require a supermajority vote, including at least one minority member, and would occur every two years. If a company over that threshold could not be certified, it would lose 230 protections and be subject to intermediary liability litigation.
The bill seems to be dead on arrival. As Mike Masnick notes in TechDirt, it would seemingly require platforms to put Nazis on an equal footing with mainstream political parties. Moreover, he notes, it’s likely unconstitutional on its face. And that’s before you consider the fact that there is no systematic evidence of bias on social networks toward anything but the extremes.
But say there was a social network willing to discriminate on the basis of politics. What would that look like? And what would it tell us about the state of political discourse on social networks?
On Monday, a popular knitting community named Ravelry offered us an answer. Edith Zimmerman reports in The Cut:
The popular knitting site Ravelry — which has more than 8 million users and is something like a combination Facebook, Google, Amazon, and public library for knitting and other textile crafts — announced on Sunday that it was “banning support of Donald Trump and his administration.” In its words, “We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy.” Support of the Trump administration, the site writes, “is undeniably support for white supremacy.”
It’s not about Democrats versus Republicans, per the blog post, and it’s “definitely not banning conservative politics.” It’s that “hate groups and intolerance are different from other types of political positions.”
On a platform the size of Facebook or even Twitter, a ban like this would feel draconian, and might well be unenforceable. (It would also give fuel to lawmakers sympathetic to Josh Hawley, of which there are more than a few.) We have come to rely on large social networks to host our political discourse in a way that makes a level playing field for all political parties feel necessary. And that desire happily aligns with those platforms’ business models, which benefit from hosting as many people as possible.
Ravelry is much smaller, and therefore less consequential. And yet I find something deliciously provocative about its decision.
The reason is that our biggest platforms’ policy positions are already closer to the knitting network’s than you might expect. In March, Facebook explicitly banned white nationalist and separatist content, bringing them within a few rhetorical feet of Ravelry’s Trump ban. In a world where white nationalists are banned, what should a social network make of content that explicitly praises (for example) concentration camps established after a lengthy, xenophobic campaign in which Trump repeatedly expressed support for white nationalist ideas?
In practice, I expect Facebook will have as little to say about this as humanly possible. But the fact that Ravelry took such a bold stand highlights why competition among social networks is such a good thing. The more social networks we have, the more chances founders have to express their values through policy. It’s notable that Ravelry’s founders say they got their idea from another miniature social network — the role-playing game forum RPG.net.
It’s enough to make you wonder what might happen if we split the big tech companies up, and the new companies that emerged fought for users on the basis of their principles.