Bishop: What’s Right About Facebook: Nothing, But Does it Matter?

Thursday, May 10, 2018


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Now that the controversy over Doug Blankenship’s Senate primary in West Virginia has receded, Republicans can go to back to feuding over what to do about Facebook, a question which starts from the false premise that it is an issue for politicians, and not the market, to work out.

We are told, by Brietbart’s Allum Bokhari, that anyone who views calls for the government to stop Facebook’s censorship of right–wing content as no different than the FCCs saber rattling about Drudge ignoring left-wing content is simply a “useful idiot”.  What we fail to grasp, Bokhari suggests, is just how big Facebook’s monopoly is, as well as it’s outsized effect in the social media realm where the reiteration creates viral ideas.

Yet this is just what people failed to appreciate about Drudge during his meteoric rise to a prolonged reign as the decider of what is news -- that his simple and unvarnished treatment of the headlines spoke to a remarkable appetite for anything but what the mainstream media was spoonfeeding us. And by embracing his style we also embraced his prejudices.  Yet if we play the same game of slicing the market to say ‘news aggregators’, Drudge commands such an outsize share why shouldn’t the government force him to carry more lefty content if it ought to push Facebook right?

Regulation not the conservative solution

But conservatives, constitutional conservatives anyway, have admirably resisted the temptation to have government solve the problems they see emerging in society without clear and convincing evidence that the market won’t eventually correct on its own. And this has been a habit maintained with extreme patience. Despite clear longstanding bias in the press and the academy, the right has resisted calls to license journalists or institute affirmative action for right-leaning professors. We have not, of course, resisted calling out the bias we see. That indeed has been the approach of the Heritage Foundation that sees Facebook suppressing conservative voices in the social network’s purported war on fake news and hate. But Heritage has worked with Facebook to see what can be salvaged of the network because they do not believe that regulating it is the answer.

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For this adherence to the principle they are awarded the booby prize by other conservatives who ironically couldn’t wait for Ajit Pai to put the dagger in ‘net neutrality’ but now want to trot our ‘Facebook neutrality’ for the government to impose. The modestly more sophisticated argument advanced by some of these shops, such as my friends at the Heartland Institute, is that they don’t demand ‘Facebook neutrality’ as a desire to regulate a business, but because Facebook benefits from the unique government subsidy of not being regulated. And ‘subsidy’ implies some unwritten duty to neutrality. This is the most glaring misconception of how a free society works to come from a bunch of groups who claim to favor one in some time. The organic expectation for culture and commerce in a free society is that it be unregulated. It is hardly a subsidy, but the foundation of the liberal economic order.

A Free and Open Internet is not a subsidy

But, but, but . . . they complain, we have this horrible Section 230 of the 1996 Telecom Act that has provided an even higher threshold against regulatory and legal interference in cyber commerce and culture: “It is the policy of the United States… to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation”  And this is a problem for conservatives?

But evil Section 230 goes on: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” So, metaphorically speaking , if you sell bullhorns, you’re not responsible for what the people who buy them speak through them.  Sounds right to me, and like a core principle of a free society. But instead, some on the right want to portray this as a ‘subsidy’ because other communications are hamstrung with regulations. Well, of course the answer is simple. Deregulate them all. A cumbersome and inefficient regulatory environment for other telecommunications is no reason to impose similarly stupid impediments on the internet.

Net Neutrality vs. Facebook Neutrality

Indeed, it is the specter of bogeymen hoarding bandwidth and not letting competitive or critical content through their networks that lead to the push for net neutrality, without any notable manifestations of this pathology. Purportedly these firms with enormous market power who controlled the last mile of your internet connection had us all by the short hairs. Conservatives correctly perceived this was simply a regulation in search of a problem, because, in practice, there were simply too many ways to the net. Discriminatory behavior would simply undermine a provider’s own customer base as patrons deserted for non-discriminatory or alternatively discriminatory providers.

But we’re told its simply different with the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google).  They command so much traffic in their respective niches that there is no other way to reach people. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to man’s mind is through his Facebook. And with this enormous market power, they have effectively created a kill zone around them. Competitors are choked off or bought out. Notice that no one trying to make an argument for regulating FANGs on the basis of a lack of competition acknowledges the patently obvious, that these companies actually compete with each other. 

Yet this is worse than the Rockefellers and Standard Oil we’re told. The barriers to competition are simply too high for any new entrants to threaten these incumbents. Really, and this is why Facebook obsesses if it doesn’t see growth in users and views as analysts dock their value? And Facebook would be happy to see 20 million conservatives pick up their marbles and go to some other network (or for that matter 20 million progressives who want to hold Facebook morally responsible for not censoring proTrump messages when it mattered, i.e. before he was elected)?

Does ‘censorship’ even work?

It is never as easy putting the genie back in the bottle anyway. I had never heard of Diamond and Silk until the good ship Facebook started taking on water for having dialed them down. It hardly matters whether it was on purpose or not. But it appears that Diamond and Silk had ample other ways to reach people about their plight making Facebook look stupid in the process, if they themselves don’t come off as mensa candidates.

They have capitalized on their common touch and fish out of water status as black Trump supporters before Kanye made it cool. They are far better known then they ever would have been if Facebook’s algorithms didn’t mess with them. Not everybody who loses page views turns into a social media star, but this notion that the world is about page views, that elections turn on how many people forward some meme on Facebook is a ridiculously cribbed view.

According to this impoverished outlook, one cannot win hearts and minds without the amplification of social media. Sure its an easy way to get attention if you say something attention getting. But the argument is that conservative views aren’t particularly de rigeur. They don’t quickly rally new adherents and take a while to sink in unless perhaps advanced in sensational, apocalyptic or impolite form, the very kinds of articulation likely to fall victim to Facebook’s display of political correctness. So how can these ideas possibly gain currency without visibility?

If Facebook is an intellectual dead end, take another route

This concern follows in the footsteps of what seemed like impossible tilting at windmills of the Federalist Society in the face of worse odds. It isn’t to say that the views expressed by its founders were held by an extreme minority, but they had been vanquished by the polite society that had hitherto controlled discourse about the law.

This Federalist Society began as a handful of students at Yale studying with Antonin Scalia who were disturbed by the bias in the legal academy and professional organizations that favored progressive updating of the constitutional order (without the actual messy debate and gaining consensus of fellow citizens to amend that governing compact). In an era before the internet, they managed to join with a few students at Harvard and The University of Chicago to charter a miniscule organization that sought to change the legal conversation.

At the time, the ABA and the law schools had such a lock on the legal profession and scholarship as to make today’s social media environment seem downright plural. There was absolutely nobody back in 1982 who thought this piddling challenge to the legal status quo would do even so much as raise an eyebrow. But not 30 years later a century of progressive jurisprudence was under siege and the legal domain genuflected to the Federalist Society ideals that the government exists to preserve freedom and the constitutional architecture, esp. the separation of powers, is a principal tool for that when Elana Kagan conceded during her confirmation hearing: “We’re all originalists now”.

Spreading the Conservative Gospel is not the job of Silicon Valley progressives

It simply is neither Facebook’s nor the government’s job to reduce the long odds against succeeding in changing the world, the country or your neighborhood. Conservatism has advanced by leaps and bounds on the internet as email and blogs and webpages have connected us more readily. Indeed it has been a medium that benefits those, like conservatives, who are not well served by traditional media. This transpired in the face of the corps of journalists who were openly hostile to conservative ideas.

If the FANGs are hostile to conservatives, which is certainly a reasonable suspicion, we should have no problem advancing our ideas and agenda by other means. Facebook is but a rock in the river, it is not the river. The conservative flood can readily flow around it or it isn’t the strong current we conceive. The same open internet that lets Facebook navigate its own way between conservatives and progressives (and perhaps run aground on the shoals of the left) is open to us, whether to create more plural domains than Facebook or to create conservative codecils in the cyber world.

And how is introducing regulation going to help foster competition? Facebook as much as begged for the government to set its standards. You think you are going to like it better if their silly fake news and hate speech algorithms are replaced by government-approved versions? And who do you think will have easier time-fighting regulators to a draw: barely funded startups or Mark Zuckerberg? Thank god for a free and open internet, even with its ungodly attributes.

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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, over-regulation egulation and perverse incentives in tax policy.


Related Slideshow: GoLocal: Benchmark Poll, October 2017

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Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.

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Yes: 100%

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Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%

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Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%

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Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don't know/Refused: .6%

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Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

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Don’t know: .9%

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Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don't know/Refused: 5%

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Over the same time, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don't know/Refused: 1%

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Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don't know: 4%

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Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don't know/refused: 17%

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American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%

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Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
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Cannot rate: 3%

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Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%

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Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%

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Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%

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Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
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Cannot rate: 11%

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Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%

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Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%

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Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%

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Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
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Cannot rate: 23%

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Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%


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