Anyone who spends time on Twitter, Facebook and other social-media platforms knows online discussions can quickly turn nasty and abusive. We’re frustrated by the situation too, but there’s little the authorities can do about what is fundamentally a cultural problem.
While there’s no easy fix, we do know something that will not make discussions better: federal intervention. Yet the Biden administration has launched a new effort that should raise every Internet user’s hackles, given that it attempts to make government regulators the arbitrators of Internet discourse.
Vice President Kamala Harris last week announced a White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse. “Many of our laws have not caught up with advances in technology,” she said. “All people deserve to use the Internet free from fear.” She promised federal funding to prosecute online abusers and vowed to work with tech companies to stamp out harassing behavior.
Government behaves like a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Reasonable people recognize governments role in combatting direct threats of violence. But the vice president complained about people being “called an offensive name online.” That’s not appropriate, but should not be criminalized. We have defamation lawsuits to handle allegations of libel.
Federal officials cannot police public discussions without quashing the First Amendment’s restriction on laws prohibiting the free exercise of speech. Technology certainly has changed dramatically since the founding, but the Constitution’s concepts are the same whether debates are in a town square, newspaper or social-media platform.
When the feds collaborate with private companies, it’s not really a collaboration. The government has immense powers, which creates pressure for companies to do the government bidding.
The White House press release said it will “focus on the nexus between online misogyny and radicalization to violence.” That’s the most Orwellian part of the official statement because it suggests that an agency with a political agenda will determine whether offensive comments may result in radical behavior and violence.
We’d love to see a kinder, gentler Internet, but fear empowering Big Brother to help achieve it.