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Facebook, Lockdown Protests, and Conservative Values

Facebook has recently attracted attention across the political spectrum for its removal of content promoting civil disobedience in protest against coronavirus lockdowns.  Have these actions crossed the line between respecting personal freedom and protecting public safety?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to do our best to walk this fine line. It is a difficult one to tread, and crossing it is sure to prompt outrage from not only civil libertarians but many conservatives.

Striking the right balance between protecting public health and protecting individual liberty poses a stark challenge for social media platforms. The most widely used conduits for social media content seek to provide users with the freedom to create content and express themselves. At the same time, most of their users want to engage in socially responsible actions too. Promoting illegal content is almost universally condemned.  Posting seriously misleading information about COVID-19, such as fake “miracle” cures, is fast becoming taboo as well.

But Facebook recently caused a social media frenzy when it removed event pages that promoted illegal violations of certain states’ quarantining measures. Some commentators, including several prominent conservatives, saw the removal of posts promoting illegal actions as evidence that Facebook is abandoning its commitment to free speech.

When Facebook removed event pages encouraging people to break lockdown rules, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) tweeted “Free speech is now illegal in America.”  Donald Trump Jr. asked, “Why is Facebook colluding with state governments to quash peoples free speech?”  The Daily Caller’s social media manager tweeted, “Facebook is now censoring free speech the government doesn’t like. What could go wrong?”

Are they right?

A better question might be, are they consistent?  Only weeks ago, many of these same conservatives berated Facebook for not doing enough to remove illegal content. Conservative senators, including Josh Hawley, went so far as to sponsor legislation that would force Facebook (and other websites that host user-created content) to remove illegal content. Conservatives in recent weeks have flooded the airwaves calling on social media platforms to remove misinformation being pushed by the Chinese Communist Party about coronavirus.

Through a procession of hearings focused on social media content moderation, in both the Senate and the House, many conservatives joined with their colleagues on the left to scold social media: moderate content on your service more aggressively, or we’ll use the government to force you to do it.

In this context, the reaction of these same conservative voices to Facebook’s handling of content calling for civil disobedience against coronavirus laws and regulations serves only to make the conservative position on content moderation less clear.  From this uneven guidance, what rule of the road is Facebook supposed to infer? Should it honor government requests to remove illegal content? Or should it honor such requests only when they come from state and local governments, and not senators?

Or is the lesson that Facebook should ignore government requests to remove illegal content?  If so, why were conservatives raking social media companies over hot coals for not removing enough illegal content only weeks ago? Why is cooperating with state governments now considered “collusion” by leading conservative figures when a moment ago it was imperative?

In fairness, if one squints hard enough, it is possible to discern some differences between the demands to take down illegal content relating to, say, sex trafficking and the pushback against taking down postings promoting illegal gatherings that threaten to spread coronavirus. While technically both activities can represent criminal behavior, actually engaging in child predation is inherently evil. Organizing a protest against the government’s coronavirus policies, even in violation of the government’s rules about how many people can gather in one place, is not necessarily evil at all. If the protesters are correct, and the government is wrong in its policy, then their civil disobedience may look more like the nonviolent protest methods of a worthy cause.

Yet if the protesters are wrong, then the gatherings themselves  threaten the health, safety, and indeed the lives of others.

All of which is to say that the seeming contradiction in conservative thought is really a manifestation of the inherent ambiguity of the balancing question itself. The answers in these situations are anything but clear cut.  Finding the right balance will necessarily be contextual and fact-dependent in each case. This, in turn, means that Facebook and every other social media site cannot escape the endlessly tricky path forward on how they handle seriously misleading content that affects the public health. It also means that, even when they make arguably correct choices, they should expect to face criticism from at least some in every quarter, including some conservatives.

This is not because conservative thought is incapable of advancing a consistent policy position on questions of liberty versus public safety. Rather, it is because – depending upon the vantage point of individual conservative commentators – the facts surrounding any one decision on content removal may appear different to them than it does to others. As result, some conservatives will punish Facebook if it removes too much content; other conservatives will punish Facebook if it doesn’t remove enough.

Even in a specific case, the same content some politicians will want to keep up, other politicians will want taken down.

Does this mean that all is lost – that we are forever trapped in a relativistic time warp in which there is no right answer and no wrong answer? That there are no conservative values that can consistently be applied to guide correct choices on content moderation?  To the contrary, the delicate nature of these questions amply illustrates that in addition to high-level principle (which for most conservatives in this context is “remove the bad stuff and leave up the good stuff”), a high level of precision will consistently be required in making close calls and nuanced judgments.

It is at this point that another, even more important conservative principle kicks in.  That is: who should be the decision-maker, government or individuals?

The hazards of central authority dictating content on any form of media, whether it be television, radio, movies, or the internet, are well understood by principled conservatives.  There are enormous advantages to decentralizing the responsibility for content moderation, maintaining it in the hands of the private sector and of individual men and women responsible to their customers for satisfying competing demands. For even if one platform strikes the wrong balance in a particular instance, there will be alternative platforms free to make their own choices differently. Overall, the constant feedback from platform users and external commentators – including, for better or for worse, politicians – will act as a governing influence on those choices, keeping them honest.

Given the enormous impact that coronavirus lockdowns have had on America’s economy and our individual lives, it should not be surprising that the temperature around these conversations is rising.  It will take time to sort out enduring rules of the road that can be applied with predictability and consistency. In the meantime, as all of us continue to endure the self-quarantines and unemployment, we conservatives can sympathize with those social media companies who are trying to do their best – and recognize that we should all do what we think is best to keep us safe.

It may be that Facebook is just trying to do its part to balance freedom and safety–just like the rest of us.