All week, we've heard about how Big Tech is destroying free speech, influencing the election, and shutting down debate. But what if the dangers are even greater? What if one of the biggest threats Twitter, Facebook, and Google pose isn't just to the public square -- but to the public health? Could Big Tech be the new Big Tobacco? And if it is, can the government treat it as such?
It's an interesting idea -- one that most of us never thought of until Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) raised it in this week's Judiciary hearing. Think back to World War II, he said on Wednesday's "Washington Watch." "The government would provide cigarettes to the troops, because it was a socially accepted product. We learned later on that the tobacco companies [knew] it was addictive and had health hazards associated with it. And so now we regulate tobacco. My question is -- these social media outlets, did they have the ability to make their product addictive? And the answer is yes."
We already know, he pointed out, that these companies are expertly manipulating people to get them to go back to their phone and these sites. If social media -- Facebook, Twitter, and others -- has an addictive element, and medical research agrees that it does (especially for young people), then it becomes destructive. "So I'm going to continue to pursue this line of thinking as to whether or not we need to regulate these social media outlets [and their business practices] from a public health point of view."
Like the gambling industry, these companies understand the science of drawing people in and creating a dependence on their platforms. But in this case, these tech giants aren't just hooking people on their content, they're controlling what they see. No group in the history of the world, Lindsey argued, has had so much power over the flow of information. And that, as his colleague Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned, is a recipe for a totalitarian regime.
Apart from the addictive aspect and the toll on mental health, there's also the long-term damage these companies are doing to Americans' education. "When you look at where people get their news," Graham pointed out, "more and more people are [turning to] Facebook." And when certain perspectives are censored, it's fundamentally altering how many of us view reality. That ought to be especially concerning to parents, who are already in competition with schools, friends, and other influences for how their children think. Now, they have to contend with social media, which has a substantial impact on what these kids see and how they think about it -- even what answers they get to their searches. Millions of people are being manipulated by these platforms, and they don't even know it.
"The challenge of my political generation," Lindsey insisted, "is to come up with a way to control this before we lose control... I don't want the government to pick and choose what we say, but these companies have the power of government -- and something's got to give."
Right now, he said, we have no recourse. None. If these companies take down your content because they don't like it, there's nothing any of us can do about it. They can't be sued. They can't be fined or punished or held accountable. "They're the only people I know of," Lindsey shook his head, "that live under no regulatory scheme." Twitter can flag a post, slap an "unverified" label on it, and declare that it fails their fact check. "Well, here's a question," Graham said, "who's doing the fact-checking?" Because if Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are defining the truth, God help us. "That's the wild, wild West."
The bottom line is: these platforms don't just need more accountability -- they need any accountability. If Facebook, Twitter, and Google want to be protected from expensive lawsuits and bloodthirsty trial attorneys, then it's time they earned that protection by giving all Americans a voice -- and a level playing field to use it on.