(CNN)Almost exactly one year after the Capitol insurrection that led to former President Donald Trump being suspended from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Big Tech was again in the political crosshairs this week for cracking down on an account from another Republican.
On Sunday, Twitter permanently banned one of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s accounts over multiple violations of the company’s Covid-19 misinformation policy. The final straw, a person familiar with the decision told CNN, was a tweet containing a graph that misleadingly purported to show deaths related to Covid-19 vaccines, a statistic Greene claimed has been ignored. (All Covid-19 vaccines available in the United States have been scientifically proven to be extremely safe and highly effective.)
Since the insurrection, Republicans have only stepped up their attacks on Big Tech platforms as mustache-twirling manipulators of partisan politics. And judging by the backlash from Greene and her allies this week, Republicans seem determined to make Big Tech a central ideological villain in 2022. But even as many have labeled this year a “do or die” moment for tech regulation, the strident, almost gleeful attempts by some politicians to caricature tech platforms risks setting back the effort and further endangers those who would benefit the most from tougher tech oversight — everyday users, including their own constituents who are being bombarded daily by public health misinformation and conspiracy theories.
In a statement following the ban, Greene labeled Twitter “an enemy to America.” Within hours, Greene began fundraising off of the ban and hinted at “big plans to fight back,” though she currently sits on no congressional committees and, according to a CNN analysis, spends most of her time filing politically charged yet moribund legislation. Greene also claimed to have been locked out of her Facebook account for 24 hours. (Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, later acknowledged having removed one of Greene’s posts for violating its policies but said removing her account was “beyond the scope of our policies.”)
As if in lockstep, other prominent Republicans chimed in Monday to level their own allegations of Big Tech censorship. Trump called Twitter a “disgrace to democracy” and a “low-life” along with Facebook, and encouraged followers to “drop off” of both platforms. Sen. Rand Paul announced in an op-ed that he was “quitting YouTube” as a New Year’s resolution and urged his followers to join him on alternative social media platforms. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy issued a statement decrying what he said was a “dangerous” decision by Twitter.
“It is clear any speech that does not fit Big Tech’s orthodoxy gets muzzled,” McCarthy said.
These sorts of criticisms are hardly new. For years, they have been identified and described as attempts to “work the refs” — the refs, in this context, being social media platforms. Social media companies have vocally denied that their technologies are ideologically biased — statements that put them on the hook with investors, financial regulators and consumer protection authorities — and reports routinely highlight how some platforms have even bent over backwards to accommodate conservatives. Credible, non-partisan reporting has not proven the allegations of anti-conservative bias in any meaningful, systemic sense. Research has shown that conservative voices on social media are sometimes among the loudest and most influential, and that misinformation from right-wing sources can be far more successful at driving engagement compared to left-wing misinformation and even credible conservative sources.
But as the country barrels toward another round of high-stakes elections this year in which social media will surely play a pivotal role, expect Republican claims of Big Tech’s bias to intensify further.
Greene and other lawmakers’ vilification of tech platforms as partisan actors fits into a much broader pattern reflecting America’s dysfunctional politics. Many of the country’s biggest political battles today are no longer about the what of politics — as in, which concrete laws and policies will serve the public best and hopefully leave Americans better off — but about the how of politics. Who gets to vote and when; which judges get to serve on the Supreme Court; and now increasingly, who gets to say what on private social media platforms.
Drawing tech platforms into the middle of the culture war grants considerable benefits to the politician willing to do it. So long as users like Greene enjoy exposure on a mainstream platform, they can use it to amplify fringe conspiracy theories that otherwise would not receive airtime. And when they are finally exiled from the platform for those claims, they can use their supposed outsider status to activate an engaged base of donors and voters who are already primed to believe the platform was motivated to discriminate.
Underscoring the point, Greene posted on an alternative social media platform after her ban that “silly punishments” do nothing but “make me more determined, stronger, & effective.” She hinted vaguely that her Twitter ban “started very big things” and claimed, without evidence, that “the sun is setting on Twitter.”
Some close to the tech industry say public figures know they can capitalize on the attention generated by social media bans, even ones that were made by mistake. “Political groups privately admit that nothing juices their web traffic more than an accidental account suspension,” tweeted Nu Wexler, a former Washington-based spokesman for Facebook, Google and Twitter.
So imagine the dividends that Greene is likely to reap this week from her ban from Twitter. By the time she was permanently suspended, Greene’s main account had earned temporary suspensions at least three times for violating Twitter’s policies. (Her official congressional account remains unblocked.)
It’s not just the politicians that stand to benefit from this song-and-dance. If the tech companies must be dragged into the culture war, the logic seems to go, then they may as well play the game, too. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that in meetings with conservatives about its whistleblower problem, Facebook’s strategy was to discredit former employee Frances Haugen as a Democratic activist. According to the Journal, the goal was to keep Republicans and Democrats from uniting and erecting tougher regulations for social media platforms. (Facebook has previously said the Journal’s reporting on Haugen’s leaks mischaracterized the platform’s internal research. The company responded to the Journal’s latest report by saying that it would defend its record and not apologize for mischaracterizations of its work.)
Tech platforms do currently face a certain level of legislative risk. In recent months, House lawmakers have coalesced around the idea of imposing new requirements on algorithms. Other bills are in play that target the platforms’ market dominance, their impact on teen mental health, and consumer privacy. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection, told CNN Business he intends to introduce a new proposal this year meant to protect kids online, though he declined to give specifics.
“Congress must seize this historic moment — a pivotal turning point for reining in Big Tech,” Blumenthal said. “Having seen Big Tech’s harms and abuses, in our hearings and their own lives, Americans are ready for action — and results.”
Congressional Republicans have widely expressed concerns over these same issues. But their added insistence on legislation addressing claims of anti-conservative censorship — often containing ideas of dubious constitutionality, according to First Amendment experts — has contributed to the legislative deadlock and slowed Congress’s progress on other forms of tech regulation.
It has been years of hearings, reports and press conferences on Big Tech’s alleged excesses. And yet amid the obvious standstill, a coterie of lawmakers including Greene continues to eke political mileage out of seeming perpetually on the verge of making Silicon Valley pay.
This everlasting limbo highlights a perverse incentive that afflicts not just members on the right, but those on the left, too. So long as Big Tech remains politically useful to elected officials as a punching bag and an object of the culture wars, the public may be the one that pays.