The controversy over social media companies allegedly censoring politically incorrect viewpoints doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. It seems that every few weeks, we get a new round of accusations, denials, and think-pieces explaining why this sort of thing is perfectly okay and nobody has any right to object to it.
In the course of this conversation, there are two groups of people likely to pop up to implicitly defend the censorship of right-wing viewpoints on social media:
I’ll refer to the first group as the “Statist Gotchas.” These are establishment Democrats and/or Republicans whose only real objective is to smear libertarianism. Their intended purpose is to expose libertarians as unprincipled hypocrites, who cite freedom and liberty as the basis of their belief structure – but are actually motivated by pure selfishness (and probably racism). Their argument typically goes something like: “You libertarians constantly drone on and on about freedom. You think corporations should be able to do whatever they want. But whenever a corporation does something you don’t like, all you do is complain about it! So much for your so-called values!” These people are essentially trolling and are typically not worth responding to or engaging with, but I include a description of them here because their argument is incorrect in the same way and can be refuted in the same manner as those of the group below.
The second group shall be referred to as the “Especially Woke Libertarians.” These are people who identify, at least partially on the occasional issue, as libertarian themselves. They are typically reasonably intelligent and possess some understanding of libertarian political philosophy. Their intent isn’t to smear libertarians as hypocritical (which would be self-defeating), but rather to enforce ideological purity – a noble goal that I myself participate in from time to time (including right now). Their objection is something to the effect of: “Twitter and Facebook are private companies and their networks are private property. They have the right to discriminate against whomever they wish, censor content in whatever manner they deem appropriate, etc. If you don’t like their policies, you are free to use a different website, or start your own social network and compete with them.”
That statement, taken in isolation, is correct. In a private property society, individuals and groups would have every right to set up social networks that operate according to whatever principles the owners deem appropriate. They have no positive obligation to provide a forum for all individuals, or to allow the equal expression of all ideas.
However, this argument completely and totally ignores a critical component of this debate. The companies in question have repeatedly made public claims that they do not engage in content-based discrimination. If this claim is incorrect, if they are, in fact, engaging in such discrimination, then they are guilty of fraudulently misrepresenting the nature of their product. As far as I know, there is not a single belief system, including private property libertarianism, that condones or endorses outright fraud. Fraud is an act of aggression, and should be called out and punished accordingly.
Let us use an analogy. Recently, Volkswagen was accused of cheating on emissions testing for their diesel engines, such that the engines appeared to emit low emissions on tests, but would emit much higher quantities in day to day driving. They claimed to be offering low-emissions engines but were actually offering high-emissions engines. This would seem to be a cut-and-dry case of fraud and was publicly decried as such. Throughout all of the discussion of this scandal, I don’t recall any Exceptionally Woke Libertarians loudly declaring, “ACTUALLY, Volkswagen is a private company and they have the right to sell whatever type of engine they want!” Because everyone understood that the violation of the law (and more importantly, of the non-aggression principle) was not the creation of the engines in and of themselves, but the misrepresentation of how the engines actually performed.
Social networks now find themselves in a similar situation. Much like Volkswagen, they have promised the public a certain product – that is, a social network free from politically-biased censorship. By making that public declaration, they have themselves voluntarily incurred a positive obligation to deliver such a product. If they cannot, or choose not to, deliver said product, they must publicly recant their promises to do so. But their continued policy of promising an objective product while delivering a heavily biased one is outright fraud, plain and simple. Libertarians have no obligation to defend fraudulent practices.
In fact, I would go even farther. I would say that libertarians have an obligation to explicitly reject such practices. To do otherwise is to play directly into the hands of the Statist Gotchas, who regularly insist that, were libertarians to have their way, evil corporations would be selling us all exploding toasters and meat tainted with rat poison. The typical libertarian response to such arguments is, “No way! That wouldn’t happen, because fraud would still be punished! It would not be permissible for companies to promise untainted meat, but sell tainted meat. Even in the absence of state authority, consumers would rise up and refuse to purchase products from any company or individual who tried to pull off such a dastardly scheme!” And yet, in the case of social media, we see the Exceptionally Woke Libertarians doing the exact opposite. They turn their nose and ignore fraudulent corporate practices, without realizing that such behavior essentially proves correct one of the primary statist objections to a free society. Why should anyone believe that those who refuse to denounce a fraudulent social network would denounce fraudulent meat? Do the EWLs really believe that private companies can do “whatever they want?” up to and including fraud?
Both statists and libertarians who focus on the supposed rights of private companies are deliberately obfuscating the issue at hand. Social networks have a right to discriminate, but they do not have a right to fraudulently misrepresent the nature of their product. They do not have the right to promise one thing and deliver another. Such acts are fraud, and are illegal under current US law, as well as clear violations of the non-aggression principle. There is no excuse for condoning such behavior, and I call on libertarians of all stripes to join me in publicly rejecting such practices as illegal, unethical, and immoral.
Answering common objections to the allegation of fraud on the part of social media companies:
When I’ve made these arguments in the past, I have received two common objections – which I will deal with here.
Objection #1: To accuse these companies of committing fraud, you must adequately prove that they are, in fact, discriminating against certain viewpoints. What evidence do you have to make such an accusation?
Response: I do not claim to possess sufficient evidence to file a criminal or civil complaint against any particular social network, but that is irrelevant to my greater argument. I am responding specifically to the notion that these companies have the right to discriminate. Given that they have made public claims of non-discrimination, this is no longer true. By making such claims, they have waived that right. We can argue over whether they actually are or are not discriminating, but that is a separate argument entirely. Making the case that the companies are not discriminating is an entirely different argument from suggesting that they are entitled, under libertarian philosophy, to discriminate. That would only be true if they did not make any public statements promising a discrimination-free service.
Objection #2: Mainstream social networks, even with discrimination, are highly successful. Nothing is stopping you or anyone else from offering a “free-speech social network” and competing with them. To the extent that such networks have already been tried, they have largely failed. The market has spoken.
Response: A market-based test requires competition within the bounds of the non-aggression principle. Fraud is an act of aggression. It may be that “free-speech” based social networks have failed largely because mainstream social networks fraudulently proclaim themselves to be tolerant of free speech, and thus, the public does not recognize the need for a niche alternative. It is difficult for a legitimate product to compete with a fraudulent one. Much like how Volkswagen received an unfair advantage by cheating on emissions tests, mainstream social networks achieve an unfair advantage by committing fraud as it regards their censorship policies. If the public understood the true nature of the services being offered, they might very well turn to alternatives in greater number, and the incentive for entrepreneurs to invest in creating such networks would dramatically increase. Given the fraudulent nature of existing products, it is not correct to conclude that a fair “market test” has already been conducted.