Let’s Not Put the Government in Charge of Moderating Facebook

Social platforms are not good at policing speech, but Washington would be even worse

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
5 min readMay 13, 2019

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Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Getty

FFacebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ New York Times op-ed last week calling for his former company to be broken up sparked responses from ex-Facebook employees (some in favor of the idea, some against it), Democratic presidential candidates (some in favor, some against), and Facebook itself (definitely against). Politico called the question of a Facebook breakup “a new litmus test” for White House aspirants.

Polarizing as it may be, however, dismantling a major American company isn’t the most radical element of Hughes’ proposal — nor the most troubling. Largely overlooked in all the debate has been his call for a U.S. government agency to regulate online speech, not only on Facebook but on all social media. It’s an idea that may hold intuitive appeal for those concerned about the power of social networks to decide what we can and can’t say — until you start to think about how it might actually work, and how to solve the problems created by social media without creating even bigger ones.

Hughes fails to make the case for why online speech should be subject to extra government scrutiny, let alone be made the province of a special government agency.

Breaking up Facebook might marginally reduce the power that Mark Zuckerberg himself holds, but antitrust action alone won’t solve the problem of companies making the rules for online speech. It merely spreads the problem around. Recognizing that, Hughes suggests an additional remedy: the same government agency in charge of regulating privacy would also “create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.” While acknowledging that the idea of government censorship “may seem un-American,” he notes that courts have already carved out exceptions to the First Amendment, and suggests that more may be needed to respond to problems such as online harassment and live-streaming violence.

He’s right about one thing: the idea of the government deciding what online speech is acceptable does seem un-American. Yes, there are limits to the types…

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