Addressing Big Tech’s power over speech

By: Bill Baer & Caitlin Chin (Brookings Institution)

At many points during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, social media platforms demonstrated their power over speech. Twitter decided to ban political advertisements permanently in October 2019, sparking a vigorous debate over free speech and so-called “paid disinformation.” One year later, Facebook and Google imposed temporary restrictions on political ads shortly after the polls closed. In May 2020, Twitter assigned fact-check labels to two misleading tweets from then-President Donald J. Trump about mail-in ballots; Facebook initially refused to follow, but later adopted its own fact-checking policy for politicians.

In June 2020, Twitter, for the first time, “hid” one of President Trump’s tweets that appeared to call for violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. Facebook chose to leave the post up. Ultimately, after the U.S. Capitol attack on January 6, 2021, all three platforms suspended Trump’s account. In the days that followed President Trump’s suspension, online misinformation about election fraud dropped almost 75 percent across multiple platforms.

These events demonstrate the ability of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others to amplify—or limit—the dissemination of information to their hundreds of millions of users. Although we applaud the steps these companies eventually took to counter political misinformation and extremism during the election cycle, their actions are also a sobering reminder of their power over our access to information. Raw power comes with the possibility of abuse—absent guardrails, there is no guarantee that dominant platforms will always use it to advance public discourse in the future.

Some leaders have suggested using antitrust law to limit the power of social media companies. U.S. Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.) echoed this sentiment in a House Antitrust Subcommittee hearing last summer by accusing Facebook of “getting away” with disseminating misinformation because it is “the only game in town.” He continued by noting that, for social media giants, “there is no competition forcing you to police your own platform”…