YouTube, Facebook, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify have all taken steps in recent weeks to exclude far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars outfit from their platforms, citing posts and broadcasts that exhibited hate speech and promoted violence. These bans, maybe the most visible so far in a larger and long-running pushback against misinformation and hateful content on social media, drew some protest on the right and no doubt will draw more. Admittedly, Jones lacks many real defenders for the substance of his views, even among strong conservatives, since Infowars is as much as anything just an extended infomercial for his line of nutritional supplements and survivalist gear as well as a promoter of truly odious falsehoods, like the Sandy Hook massacre being a hoax. But the story adds to the American right’s growing, bitter antagonism against Silicon Valley and serves the larger narrative of oppression by powerful liberals. No less than President Trump himself—perhaps as just one of many attempts to deflect during a week of terrible news—fanned the flame Friday morning. In a tweet at 6:34 a.m., he accused “Social Media Giants” of “silencing millions of people.”
This blowback highlights a tension in the conservative vision that isn’t much talked about, and in American ambivalence more generally about business, government, and individuals. We’re not just talking about free-marketeers criticizing private businesses for their independent judgments. That’s been talked about a lot. We also don’t mean the irony of conservatives now turning to government for help—even in its bizarre manifestations, like an arch-libertarian group’s apparent request that Congress regulate the very content of private social media sites. We mean that American conservatives are now feeling a predictable sting that they themselves are mainly culpable for bringing about.
Conservatives have increasingly accused social media platforms—run by a Silicon Valley elite they’ve long held suspect—of excluding their views. Social media in particular became their target after an allegation in the spring of 2016 that some Facebook moderators had suppressed right-wing news content. Since then, any number of small scandals have fanned the flames, including a purge by Twitter of thousands of fake-news accounts, a clandestinely filmed video in which Twitter employees discuss the “shadow banning” of “shitty people,” temporary suspensions of the likes of David Duke and Richard Spencer, and the improbable saga of Diamond and Silk. Conservatives have increasingly turned to government, and conservative politicians have taken to the cause with a vengeance. Republicans now overwhelmingly believe that social media censors their views, and they are vocally critical and eager for change.
For the record, we’re also worried that powerful private interests have such a large influence over so much of American debate and politics. But why are conservatives at all concerned about whether private companies ban anyone or why they would do it? Put aside that these are private companies that may have their own First Amendment rights. Put aside too that social media censorship may fall disproportionately on far-right conservatives because they share far more false news than those of any other group. Rather, conservative critics seem to suggest—sometimes explicitly—that these firms are literal monopolies. This fear of monopoly power is awkward, given their traditional confidence in self-correcting markets. But in any case, if social media censorship really does disadvantage them in the marketplace of ideas, it could only be for two reasons. Conservatives should face the dilemma that each possibility poses. On the one hand, if the platforms lack market power, as traditional conservative economics would likely insist, they privilege liberal views only because it is more profitable for them to do so. No serious believer in markets could object to that. On the other hand, the platforms might have some real market power, and that allows them to squelch ideologies just because their owners don’t like them.
That is the much more interesting problem, because we actually have a law—and have had it for more than a century—meant to prevent agglomerations of private power that markets themselves can’t police. That law, our antitrust, has been rendered almost a nullity, over 50 years of agitation by the same conservative movement now feeling the pinch on social media. Their campaign against antitrust has, to some more or less explicit degree, always been a defense of the same individual liberty now said to be imperiled by Silicon Valley monopolies.
Consider, for example, conservative opposition to the Justice Department’s challenge to the AT&T–Time Warner merger. The very idea of an antitrust challenge to a vertical merger—the first such challenge litigated in 40 years—was met with outrage and mockery, often on explicitly libertarian critique of government. But what will those same critics say if the merged firm decides, for whatever reason, to constrain them, just like social media has done? It will surely have more power to do so after the merger. It will combine the single largest American video-distribution operation, a massive broadband internet business, and leading news and information assets. But conservatives’ only option presumably will be the regulation that they disfavor. And that is rich, because one of the oldest arguments for antitrust is the threat that regulation will be needed if government doesn’t control concentration proactively.
Fifty years of neglected competition policy may have permitted a world in which a small handful of wealthy liberals can constrain conservative speech. But if that really is the case, then American conservatives have only themselves to blame.