A republican form of government requires a free and open public square. The Founders thought that free speech was necessary for self-government. In an address to the officers of the army, George Washington said, "...the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter."
All political power originates in the American people, therefore the right to freely reason and deliberate is essential. Only in a free and open public square is every voice heard, and the best arguments prevail. Today, social media platforms are the modern-day equivalent to the public square. Social media is where people discuss ideas and make their voices heard.
During the dawn of the internet, Congress laid out policies that enabled the internet to flourish. Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act provides platforms, like Twitter and YouTube, legal protections against liability. Publishers, like CNN and the New York Times, are responsible for the content on their websites. If publishers print something defamatory, they can be sued.
Given that a platform does not moderate its content, section 230 provides legal protections against liability. It also allows platforms to remove graphic and violent material while keeping their legal protections. Recent activity by tech leaders against section 230 has prompted President Trump to issue an executive order calling for clarification of the law.
Trump’s executive order comes days after Twitter ramped up its interference with his tweets. Twitter fact-checked a tweet by Trump about mail-in ballots, even though his facts were correct. Right-wing accounts are routinely restricted or outright banned, while violent left-wing accounts are largely ignored. Recently, Kathy Griffin faced only minimal push-back from Twitter after she called for the murder of the President, for the second time.
In response to the Minneapolis riots, Trump went to Twitter to call for order and denounce the violence. Twitter partly blocked Trump's tweet, claiming that his tweet “violated Twitter's rules about glorifying violence.” Meanwhile, actual displays and threats of violence from the Minneapolis riots are littered throughout Twitter. Trump's tweet contained no glorification of violence, rather he condemned the violence. In addition to Twitter, YouTube has been silencing conservative voices like PragerU for years.
Several commentators have criticized Trump’s executive order. Jonah Goldberg writes in The Dispatch that “Under the First Amendment, Twitter has every right to comment on government statements, including on its own platform. If it editorializes in a biased or misleading way, that is its right. But if it did, everyone would be free to disregard its statements as they see fit.” The Editors of the Wall Street Journal argued “Users can make up their own minds.” Likewise, David French writes in Time that Trump is "endangering the Constitution.”
French, Goldberg, and The Wall Street Journal have missed the point. They ignore the reality that tech overlords have unprecedented control over the national conversation. When Twitter bans the President’s tweets and places restrictions on conservative accounts while ignoring left-wing accounts, it has crossed the border from a platform of content to a judge of content. Social media has transformed themselves into publishers. Their nature has fundamentally changed.
A society where tech titans control the national conversation through selective censoring is not republican. It is dystopian. Elite Silicon Valley executives have no authority to control the peoples’ dialogue. Attorney General William Barr correctly pointed out that “Section 230 has been stretched way beyond its original intention” and that Trump’s executive order helps to move towards the original intent of the law.
Tech titans have forced their voices onto the American people through censoring, demonetizing, and shadow banning. When Twitter selectively blocks and fact-checks certain political voices, it influences the general population towards Twitter's viewpoint. Thus, social media is not a neutral public square for free discussion, as mandated by section 230. Free and open public squares, a central component of the Republic, are now threatened by Silicon Valley. Platforms must either follow the laws or their legal shield against liability should be revoked. Properly enforcing section 230 would result in tech titans losing their grasp over the national conversations and the restoration of a free and open public square.