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Midterms 2022: Republicans’ big tech revenge era is about to begin

Expect hearings, and hearings, and hearings.


Jacob Seitz


Posted on Nov 7, 2022   Updated on Nov 8, 2022, 8:30 pm CST

Republicans have painted themselves as unfairly victimized by big tech censorship over the past four years, as several prominent conservatives have been banned from social media platforms. 

While their gripes are grounded in some legitimacy, they also believe they’re on the wrong end of a concerted effort by companies to silence their voices by algorithmically demoting content. They believe their opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic were filtered out in favor of Democrats. They believe, without a doubt, that big tech and the mainstream media conspired to shift the 2020 election by censoring and restricting stories about President Joe Biden’s son. 

And left unchecked, they’ll do it all again in 2024.

With the GOP likely to take control of the House and possibly win the Senate, the party plans a full-out assault in response. 

While the party, even with control of both chambers, won’t get any bills past President Joe Biden, there are several avenues it can attempt to hit back at big tech. From hearings to investigations, a Republican House will likely be laser-focused on retribution against everyone from Meta to Google to TikTok. 

They’re mad they’ve been branded as misinformation artists. That their memes aren’t getting retweets, that their emails are winding up in spam, and that the companies doing it are staffed by liberal elites who they feel look down on their party. 

At the forefront of their agenda is Section 230. Section 230 is a part of a 1996 law intended to shield internet publishers from liability for what users post on their platforms. It is seen as the bedrock for the modern internet, but Republicans feel social media companies are violating the statute in myriad ways, predominantly when they moderate and algorithmically distribute content, acting as publishers instead of platforms. 

For supposedly limiting the reach of offensive or conspiratorial Donald Trump Jr. posts to keeping their follower counts artificially low, Republicans now want to strip away the protections social media companies have from the lawsuits Section 230 shields them from.

They have allies in Democrats, who wish to change the way the statute works as well, for different reasons. While a partnership may not be forged, Republicans already have bills to hold hearings and grandstand upon. 

Republicans laid out their roadmap for a Section 230 overhaul in advance of taking the House. It will take a wrecking ball to the ideas of a free and open internet, privacy, and content moderation.

Seemingly every controversial Republican has a particular part of the statute they want to destroy, with bills or measures sponsored by a who’s who of GOP figures. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wants to strip protections from companies who “censor constitutionally protected” speech. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) wants to “prevent companies from blocking or preventing access to lawful content.” Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.), the brother of former Vice President Mike Pence, wants to strip the statute from companies that have counterfeit goods listed on their platform for sale. In total, Republican Energy and Commerce Committee members proposed 11 different “carve-outs” that would gut Section 230, all vaguely worded enough to be used as threats but perhaps not coherent enough to be put into fungible legislation. 

Others want the statute entirely abolished. 

The Online Content and Policy Modernization Act was proposed during a time when Republicans were crying foul over COVID-19 misinformation policies and 2020 election censorship. It would remove all Section 230 protections from platforms that actively restricted information or modified posts made by users, like when Twitter would put a fact-check on then-President Donald Trump. 

The act would remove protections for “any decision or agreement made or action taken by a provider or user of an interactive computer service to restrict access to or availability of material provided by another information content provider.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the bill an “unconstitutional mess” when it was proposed, and a coalition of tech advocacy groups signed a letter urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the bill.

While the bill—proposed by Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)—never made it out of committee, it could set the stage for what Republicans do in the new year. In the House, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) introduced a similar bill barring companies that ban users or restrict access to their websites from receiving Section 230 protection. Under Greene’s bill, users that believe they were wrongly suspended or banned could be granted the power to sue tech companies that banned them.

While it’s aimed at retribution against big tech, it could have the adverse effect of entrenching the biggest companies, as they’d be the only sites that could afford the myriad lawsuits any platform might be beset with. 

But before they set about accidentally banning free speech online, their crusade will likely involve hauling tech executives in front of Congress to answer for their supposed crimes. 

The party in charge has subpoena power, and in the past two years, Democrats used it to develop an antitrust case against Alphabet, Amazon, and others. But Republicans’ concerns in these hearings have always been less refined, using them to question if Google would adopt a “bigoted anti-police policy” or ask how ads work.

With a majority in the House, however, Republicans could set the antitrust agenda, grilling CEOs on why their QAnon praise got deleted. Republican antitrust hearings would have twice the spectacle and none of the substance. 

At the heart of all of this is a vindictive party that wants to punish tech companies for what it views as years and years of censorship by Silicon Valley. A Republican-controlled House can enact their very public revenge.

They also want to take up the mantle of anti-censorship, but only for the leaders of their parties. It’s a matter Republican state legislatures have already been pushing, with Texas and Florida leading the way.

The two states have new laws aiming to stop social media companies from deplatforming or taking down posts from candidates running for office or official representatives. The laws set up fines for the companies that do so, which can run up to $250,000 per day in Florida. The Florida law was proposed after then-President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter and could soon go before the Supreme Court. A Republican-leaning court clear a path for a national bill that could allow Congress to dictate how social media companies police their users.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said the law would offer Floridians “protection against the Silicon Valley elites” and said that if companies’ “censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favor of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable.”

According to the New York Times, over 100 similar bills have been proposed across the country.

At the heart of the “dominant Silicon Valley ideology” is what they believe to be liberal views, best exemplified by Twitter and Facebook’s suppressing a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop a month before the 2020 election. Under the Florida law, social media platforms cannot take down or deprioritize content from a “journalistic enterprise” of a certain size.

The story was briefly censored on social media platforms and dismissed by major news outlets, who called it a hoax. 

But, as more details came to light, the salacious content of Hunter Biden’s laptop was proven to be true, vindicating Republicans. Now, almost every executive at Twitter and Facebook who had a role in blocking links to the story will be called before Congress to explain how they swung the 2020 election for Biden. 

A Republican-controlled House could also do what Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr has been pushing for and investigate TikTok, a matter they’ve already shown interest in.

TikTok, despite its popularity, has largely escaped the ire of Congress thus far. But with growing pressure from conservatives to ban or crack down on the app, it too could be in the crosshairs in a GOP-controlled House, which would be firmly anti-China.

In July, after a bombshell BuzzFeed article, House Republicans demanded TikTok prove that U.S. user data was not being held in China, where the app’s parent company is based. The move followed increased scrutiny of the popular social media app from U.S. officials over the summer.

Perhaps the only tech platform that will escape their investigative desires is the current iteration of Twitter. When Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter was finalized last month, Republicans implied that they were ready for an uncensored platform, alleging that free speech had been shackled in the past. Musk was praised for liberating their ideology on the platform, and they’re optimistic he’ll bring back formerly banned right-wing accounts.

Or maybe not. He’s already upset some of them meeting with civil rights leaders about content moderation and has yet to reinstate accounts. 

Christopher Mitchell, a director for the advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance said he thinks Republican hearings will be spectacles. 

“This is a party that has become more interested in just being in the news than actually accomplishing anything legislatively,” he said in an interview with the Daily Dot. “And so I’m more worried about them trying to obstruct things using hearings.”

Meaning big tech is about to be hit with some big fireworks.

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*First Published: Nov 7, 2022, 7:00 am CST