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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been scrutinizing social media companies in recent years. Pressure for reform stems from dissatisfaction with how platforms moderate content, although there remains a deep partisan divide on what the real problems are. Many Republicans have pushed for platforms to remove less content, particularly controversial political speech. In contrast, many Democrats want companies to remove more content. As Stanford professor Mark Lemley aptly writes, “Both parties want to eliminate or restrict section 230 in order to change how platform intermediaries filter content. But they want that change to have diametrically opposed effects.”
In part because of their anger at social media companies for their perceived liberal bias, and in part because they think it is a good solution, some Republican members of Congress have thrown their lot in with antibusiness, Neo-Brandeisians and are calling for the antitrust breakup of large social media companies. Besides seeing breakup as a well-deserved punishment for what they believe are overly liberal companies, they prefer more and smaller platforms with different user bases and content moderation practices. Each of these smaller platforms would have control over a smaller portion of online speech, and it would be easier for users who disagreed with one platform’s policies to move to a different platform that is more in line with the user’s ideological orientation.
However, antitrust is the wrong tool to address content moderation—and weaponizing antitrust because of animus to certain companies is simply wrong.
First, large Internet firms are not inherently problematic or anticompetitive. The goal of antitrust should be to promote consumer welfare and innovation, not to break up any firm that meets an arbitrary size-based threshold. There is currently plenty of innovation and competition in the social media space, with smaller companies like Reddit, Parler, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Tumblr and newer competitors like TikTok coexisting alongside Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Breaking up the bigger platforms would do little to advance currently smaller platforms many conservatives favor, like Parler.
Second, there are good reasons for Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, and YouTube’s size and success. Network effects are strong in social media because the value of a social media platform increases with the platform’s user base. Many users want to be on the same platform as their family, friends, and colleagues. Breaking up platforms would reduce the value to consumers as many would now have to be on multiple, if not dozens of platforms to stay in touch with their contacts and to post what is important to them.
Moreover, breaking up these companies is no guarantee that other companies won’t take their place and become equally or more dominant, with the same, if not stronger, incentives around content moderation as the leading companies have today.
In addition, platforms with large user bases have users across the political spectrum, but smaller platforms that cater to specific groups or ideologies could create even more insulated online communities—the same “filter bubbles” that some lawmakers blame for the spread of misinformation and radicalization.
Breaking up large social media companies would also create content-moderation problems, not solve them. Even staunch critics of tech platforms acknowledge that breakups would exacerbate speech problems. Smaller companies have fewer resources to dedicate to content moderation, such as algorithms that automatically remove infringing content or teams of human moderators working around the clock. This could lead to a proliferation clearly illegal and problematic content such as terrorist promotion.
For example, in the context of the Russian attack of Ukraine, the social media platforms that best moderate Russian propaganda are the targets of Russian censorship: Facebook and Twitter are banned because they work effectively to limit the spread of Russian disinformation. Smaller social media platforms such as RT, LiveJournal, and vKontakte do not have these concerns, and therefore can be more prone to spread Russian disinformation.
The case of Internet platforms and antitrust creates one of these relatively unique situations where the right and the left (as opposed to the center-right and center-left) have found some common ground. But Republicans should be careful here, because for the antibusiness Neo-Brandeisians, the assault on big tech is just the beginning—the easy target—of a much more radical campaign to transform the U.S. economy into one with fewer large, successful, highly productive and innovative corporations. Given Republicans’ long-standing interest in free markets and economic growth, this is a path they should heartily decry. Not only illegitimate from the perspective of property rights, calls for breakups ignore the considerable unintended consequences when it comes to speech moderation, and thus would create far more problems than they solve.
Instead, Congress should address content-moderation issues in ways that both ensure free speech and preserve the innovation incentives of tech platforms to improve their products and services for the benefit of consumers. Optimal content moderation requires social media platforms developing adequate tools while operating transparently with adequate societal governance and oversight, not taking dynamite to the industry and blasting it to pieces.