The Quest for Dominant Discourse: Section 230 Rears Its Head Again Amid Elon Musk Twitter Takeover

section 230 jen psaki
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a daily briefing in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on April 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Psaki spoke on a range of topics including further COVID-19 relief legislation and reports of Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

April 27, 2022

After two years of Republicans wishing to revoke Section 230 and eliminate liability protections for social media platforms, the conversation has commenced again, but this time from Democrats. This has prompted concern from the right over how reformation of the section would be applied, fearing that it will be another attempt to exert ideological control after Elon Musk finalized his deal to acquire Twitter.

During a Senate tech hearing in October 2020, chief executives for Twitter, Facebook and Google fielded questions from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. While Republicans were focused on the tech giants’ censorship of conservatives, Democrats focused on “misinformation” regarding the November 2020 election.

Republican lawmakers and then-President Donald Trump supported revoking Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 after Twitter “masked his tweets” about the George Floyd riots in Minnesota during 2020. At the time, conservatives praised this action as a viable way to combat censorship.

This would have been a power play, and a reactionary one at that. Because now that Elon Musk is poised to take Twitter private, after reaching a $44 billion deal with the board on April 26, questions about Section 230 resurfaced, and not in conservatives’ favor.

(READ MORE: Do We Embrace Conservatism as a ‘Reactionary’ Movement?)

While the deal was being finalized on April 25, Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing whether there was any concern over Musk’s bid and the potential that President Trump might be back on the platform.

“No matter who owns or runs Twitter, the President has long been concerned about the power of large social media platforms, what they ha- — the power they have over our everyday lives; has long argued that tech platforms must be held accountable for the harms they cause.” She added that “[Biden] has been a strong supporter of fundamental reforms to achieve that goal, including reforms to Section 230, enacting antitrust reforms, requiring more transparency, and more. And he’s encouraged that there’s bipartisan interest in Congress.”

Despite claims made by Reuters and other outlets that, “No fresh announcements were made by the White House on plans to reform Section 230,” based on the above statement, it appears Psaki was the first to bring it up during the briefing. But at the same time, shortly after the 2020 election, Joe Biden sat down with a New York Times reporter, where he mentioned his support for revoking Section 230.

Section 230 is partially defined as “broad immunity” for providers and users so that they are not held liable for content that others publish. For providers, this means that liability is eliminated when a user posts something that may be prohibited by laws on obscenity or the sexual exploitation of children, sex trafficking, etc. In other words, social media platforms are not treated as publishers, but as hosts.

(READ MORE: Elon Musk’s Twitter Bid: The Ministry of Truth Was Challenged)

Because the criticism for the law differs in focus and application for Republicans and Democrats, reforming or entirely revoking Section 230 would have varying results. On the Republican side, these platforms would be liable to lawsuits as though they were publishers, specifically for how they curate and moderate content. After the 2020 election, then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that its censorship of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop scandal was a “mistake.”

Dorsey has also recently tweeted that “Twitter as a company has always been my sole issue and my biggest regret. It has been owned by Wall Street and the ad model. Taking it back from Wall Street is the correct first step,” adding that he believes Musk to be the “singular solution” to the issue of Twitter being considered a “company.”

If this section was revoked two years ago, it’s likely that Twitter would have been sued for a slew of complaints that conservatives had against the company, such as shadow-banning, down ranking replies, removing followers, and suspending and banning accounts. The most glaring hypocrisy in blocking Trump’s tweets, and then permanently banning him, is the service’s decision to keep the Taliban and Ayatollah. If violence and hate speech were really matters of concern, it’s curious how the Ayatollah, who calls for genocide, earned Twitter’s good graces.

If the Biden Administration makes plans to reform or remove Section 230, would that apply to all social media platforms and, if so, would they be applied equally? As Democrats currently wield power, it’s unsurprising to many that they would push for reformation of Section 230 in their favor. Any dominant power with its posterity in mind will seek to level the playing field to its advantage.

French philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote in The Order of Things that, “in any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility for knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.”

Politics is hardly ever merely theoretical and never silent as much as it is dramaturgical; but what Foucault is saying is that a dominant set of ideas and values (episteme) shapes the way we identify and interact with knowledge. When a certain way of speaking, or a discourse, is dominant, or when narratives are made to be uniform across institutions, then they determine what we consider to be true. This is why the left is so up in arms about Musk owning Twitter; because, as far as we know, he is not going to be the gatekeeper of their ideas.

Since his bid to own Twitter, Musk has caused distress amongst the political left, as his self-avowed free speech absolutism is seen as a threat to the ideological camp that thrives on labeling disagreement “misinformation.” Conservatives took to Twitter:

Musk also faces standards and laws in place by other governments. He has caused such anxiety that EU regulators are threatening a “ban” if he doesn’t comply with their standards.

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