What happens when your political enemy starts to agree with you on an issue of abiding importance?
Well, if you’re Donald Trump, there never has been, and never will be, such a moment. Not a single thing the 45th president said or did passed muster with the Trump-deranged American left. Not a rapid-growth economy or full employment or energy independence or gloom of night stayed these progressive couriers from the swift completion of their appointed Trump-destroying rounds.
But with the 45th president now replaced by the 46th, and a sense of establishment-pleasing, back-to-the-future “normalcy” re-emerging in the post-Trump era — possibly the pre-Trump 2.0 era — at least one issue of bipartisan agreement has emerged. Well, sort of, anyway. The problem is that the two sides reach the same conclusion from polar opposite perspectives.
The left and right are in agreement about limiting the ever-growing power of social media giants. Both sides are at best uncomfortable — the left, of course, in particular — with their accumulation of untold wealth and the unregulated digital gold rush by these modern-day titans, arguably more powerful than the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Vanderbilts in the age of robber barons. They concur on the judgment that Facebook, for one, is acting inappropriately in moderating content. But that is where the two sides part company.
Joe Biden has, somewhat shockingly, accused the tech giant of “killing people” because it was not censoring enough on the issue of COVID-19, allowing too much misinformation to be posted. Of course, the right has long cried foul because Facebook, possessing more than two billion subscribers worldwide, has engaged in naked censorship of conservative content. Similarly supersized Twitter has famously banned Trump. Queries on the overwhelmingly dominant search platform, Google, invariably produce a lengthy list of leftist content. Brother-in-arms YouTube has warned, demonetized, and deplatformed numerous conservatives because of its “community standards.” Of course, the only community fashioning those standards is the one populated by Facebook censors.
So, is the best strategy to work with like-minded leftists — such as Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, who has long been on the warpath about the outsized power of social media — to reduce the virtually unlimited, unchecked power of these mammoth companies? Or would it be best for conservatives to stick to their side of the aisle, knowing that, once such power is effectively reined in by whatever means avail themselves (and none have yet), the left will turn on them afresh?
Specifically, what if the zero-sum game of reduced social media power means a requisite increase in the power of the federal government to regulate speech? And what if the leftists back away from the whole thing if they perceive that their campaign against big tech has been co-opted by their ideological enemies?
This conundrum is not dissimilar to the issue of Vietnam some 50 years ago, when both sides hated the war for opposite reasons. Those on the left hated it because they were doves, those on the right because they were hawks. The conduct of the war enraged both sides, one demanding withdrawal, the other believing we were insufficiently committed to victory.
Significant reform based on governmental targeting of big tech companies, like the many spasmodic attempts to end the Vietnam War, will not happen overnight. It will likely evolve over several years, but there is already more action on this front than one might suspect.
Google was hit with antitrust actions by the Trump Justice Department and 38 state attorneys general filing separate antitrust cases in 2020 for blocking competing search engines. Another antitrust action filed last year on behalf of a group of states against Google claims that its parent company, Alphabet Inc., uses its power to shake down websites that rely on its advertising program for revenue.
And the beat goes on in 2021 — on the other side of the aisle. In June, the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee passed six separate bills designed to curb the power of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. And another antitrust suit was filed this month by three dozen state attorneys general, alleging Google’s app store, as with its search engine, blocks competition.
Tech giants have become accustomed to attacks from the right for their thinly veiled censorship. How will they now respond to charges of insufficient censorship, the growing disdain of the left — and a president not named Trump?
It would be foolish to believe that leftists will form anything resembling an alliance with conservatives on the issue of big tech. But, as they say, any port in a storm will do — and perhaps conservatives will embrace inadvertent aid and comfort from their enemies in their Sisyphus-like quest to compete on a level digital playing field.
Read more from Tim Donner.