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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

A dangerous social media free-for-all

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The battle over free speech, censorship, and political bias in social media erupted again last week when Twitter and Facebook disabled links to a New York Post story about a cache of emails allegedly showing that Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, may have involved his father, then vice president of the United States, in his business dealings in Ukraine. If you tried to tweet the link, you would receive a message saying that it contained potentially "harmful" material. The Post’s Twitter account was also locked.

Twitter’s official rationale was that the story was based on hacked materials. Yet many Republicans, who have criticized left-wing bias on social media platforms, were quick to denounce these actions as blatant censorship and "election interference." On Monday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) published an op-ed in the Post urging the Senate to curb "Big Tech" and enable lawsuits against social media companies over political bias.

Others, including Rep. Justin Amash, the formerly Republican and now Libertarian congressman from Michigan, say it’s the anti-"Big Tech" Republicans who seek to infringe on freedom of speech by forcing private corporations such as Twitter to provide a platform for material they choose not to carry.

There is no denying that Twitter and Facebook have a unique status today as the dominant social media platforms. Twitter, in particular, is treated as a de facto public square — the place where politicians, journalists, business leaders and other public figures communicate with the people. So far, attempts to create alternatives have fizzled.

Regardless of the validity of the Post story (which seems questionable), the idea that social media could substantially hinder the distribution of a story its executives deem "harmful" should be disturbing if you care about free expression. In this case, there was no actual hindering: if anything, the story got more attention because of Twitter’s actions, and anyone who wanted to find the "censored" material could easily find it via Google. But what if Google, also a private platform with unprecedented reach, joined in the effort to protect the public from apparent disinformation and removed the problem link from its search engines?

How far do we want to go down the road of tech company executives deciding what is legitimate news? What if material that runs afoul of progressive views on controversial issues — e.g., a critique of the Black Lives Matter movement, a defense of a man accused of sexual harassment, or an argument that gender transition should not be allowed for underage children — is blocked from Twitter distribution as "harmful" content?

But there are also good reasons to oppose a government-mandated social media free-for-all. Should Twitter and Facebook be forced to allow unfettered access to peddlers of white supremacist or jihadist propaganda, advocates of child sexual abuse, or conspiracy theorists who claim that school shootings are fake while celebrity-run pedophile sex slavery rings are real?

In the end, none of the Big Tech companies are true monopolies. If Twitter or Facebook go too far in repressing mainstream conservative viewpoints, enough users will vote with their feet (or fingers) to make alternative platforms a reality. Public opinion — which is a part of the free market of ideas — also plays an important role. Because of the backlash against Twitter’s actions with regard to the Biden emails story, the company has not only restored access to the link but also amended its policy on hacked materials: in the future, links to such content will be disabled only if posted by the actual hackers.

The market has worked. Government should stay out.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.