Congressman Morgan Griffith: An Open Letter to the Social Media/Tech Industry

Social media occupies a prominent place in modern America. Remarkably prominent, given how novel the medium is.

Facebook and Twitter were both founded this century. These companies pioneered new avenues for people to interact with each other, and a recent study found that 67% of Americans get at least some news on social media. The companies grew rapidly in the process. In 2018, they rank among the most powerful companies on the planet.

That power raises questions. This year, I’ve participated in two high-profile Energy and Commerce Committee hearings featuring executives of social media companies. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in April and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appeared before the committee in September. In the latter hearing, Mr. Dorsey acknowledged that “Twitter is used as a global town square.”

We had a lot to ask both of these executives: about free speech, censorship, illegal activity, privacy, and many other pressing issues. Many Americans suspect that these companies, which are widely used by people of all beliefs, treat certain perspectives unfairly and fail to explain what constitutes permissible content.

I encouraged Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey to take these concerns seriously. I don’t believe their companies act with conscious bias toward conservative viewpoints, but the outcome is the same as if they did.

It is the product of the unfortunate tendency in America today to associate overwhelmingly with those who think as we do. Silicon Valley is a liberal enclave. Its residents don’t often come in contact with conservatives, and so they find it difficult to distinguish extremism from views held widely in the heartland and rural areas.

I believe the social media companies have ways to address these concerns; if they don’t, government action and regulation may be unavoidable, even as it remains deeply undesirable.

I don’t know what the industry response should look like, but I proposed a model to both gentlemen.

The model I suggested in the hearings is Underwriters Laboratories. In the early days of electrical power, it was established by insurers and manufacturers to evaluate electrical appliances for safety. Councils consisting of various industry stakeholders were convened to advise on safety standards.

This concept set clear benchmarks, advanced electricity as a safe source of power, and reassured the public of electricity’s value. I believe social media would benefit from a similar approach.

The analogy doesn’t match up exactly, but I believe the industry should convene councils representing viewpoints from the left, right, and center of the political and religious spectrum. They would set standards for speech. By having the broad range of voices at the table, social media companies would be better able to root out speech that genuinely seeks to incite violence while allowing for free debate.

Further, standards would be set by respected third parties and be maintained across the industry, meaning companies would not have to develop their own.

This idea has already drawn support from Dr. Jerry Johnson, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters. He said, “There is well-documented censorship . . . I agree with Rep. Morgan Griffith when he told Dorsey yesterday that the ideal is for the industry leaders – not the government – to take action on responsible standards.”

I urge the companies to accept this model for their own interests as well as the interests of their users. Frustration is growing with perceived bias and the opaque process for determining what is in or out of bounds. Without the redress of these grievances by the tech giants, government action and regulation may be the next step.

Such a move would present its own difficulties. Government regulation in general is heavy-handed and less responsive to the facts on the ground. The legacy of government involvement in speech includes ill-considered actions such as the Fairness Doctrine.

But as things stand now, suppression of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment may be occurring on social media. Never before have companies had such power to control what people read or hear. If government intervenes in this situation, it would be to protect the speech rights we possess as Americans.

I hope it doesn’t come to that. Just like electric-powered appliances once were, social media is a new phenomenon. The more common it becomes in modern life, the more responsibility its pioneers have to wield their power carefully.

My impression from the hearings with Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey is that they recognize this fact as well. How they respond is important not just for the future of the tech industry but for free speech.

Congressman Morgan Griffith

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