The liberal leaders of Google, YouTube, and Twitter can't stop Donald Trump from winning a second term, but they can stop the American people from hearing the best case for why he deserves one. It's all part of the platforms' new approach to 2020: limiting -- or in Twitter's case, outright banning -- political ads. But is the extreme policy really about staying neutral or just another Big Tech solution to the "Trump situation?"
Most of us aren't huge fans of the around-the-clock election commercials. What we are fans of is the freedom to air them. A freedom, "60 Minutes" points out, that's increasingly under attack. In just a handful of months, the show's researchers discovered that even on Google and YouTube -- the two companies without a blanket restriction -- more than 300 Trump ads had been taken down for "violating company policy." But, CBS explains, the platforms don't explain what policy the ads actually violated. "Was it copyright violation? A lie or extreme inaccuracy? Faulty grammar? Bad punctuation? It's unclear. The ads determined to be offending are not available to be screened."
When "60 Minutes" Leslie Stahl sat down with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, she point-blank asked her if any Trump ads had been taken down. "There are ads," she said evasively. When Stahl asked for an example, Wojcicki insisted the information was "available in our transparency report." But, as CBS fired back, "We found very little transparency in the transparency report.
"As you know," Stahl told her, "conservatives think that you discriminate against them." Wojcicki did very little to allay those concerns, reiterating the company line that YouTube's "systems, our algorithms, they don't have any concept of understanding what's a Democrat, what's a Republican... [W]e are trying to enforce our policies in a consistent way for everybody."
Meanwhile, over at Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey was cheered for insisting the company would stay out of the fray. But are they? The reality is, some point out, it's still in a position "of arbitrating political speech" just by deciding what is -- and isn't -- political. Steven Law, over at the Wall Street Journal, thinks users should be wary.
Any call, he argues, "to limit the ability of candidates and groups to communicate with voters are, in effect, a plea to restrict Americans' First Amendment freedom. To be sure, the Founders couldn't have imagined a world of search engines and social media, but they chose to guarantee freedom of speech in the broadest terms possible. One can imagine Thomas Jefferson -- once the patron saint of the Democratic Party -- being appalled by efforts to restrict a speaker's power to reach his intended audience."
"One of the most consequential effects of the internet is the democratization of speech and information. That can be messy and sometimes counterproductive, but America's constitutional tradition has always bet on freedom as the best antidote to whatever ills our democratic system faces. It's still the best policy."
Over at Facebook, which stands to lose the most money if it regulated election speech, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is airing on the side of capitalism. "It's really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments," he told CBS. "This is a clearly a very complex issue, and a lot of people a lot of different opinions." But, he went on, "at the end of the day, I just think that in a democracy, people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying." What about politicians or PACs spreading lies or making untrue statements, Gayle King asked? Again, Zuckerberg said, "...people should be able to judge for themselves."
When the platform refused to bow to the Biden campaign and take down an ad that implicated him in a Ukrainian scandal, Facebook took a lot of heat. At least for now, it can remain, the company replied because of Facebook's "fundamental belief in free expression [and] respect for the democratic process." (And the cash flow doesn't hurt either.) But from a market standpoint, Zuckerberg is right. It's a better business model to let everyone play -- unless, like Google and YouTube, perhaps -- your business model is to push an ideological agenda.