Commentary: Blackburn bluster is incoherent about social media

December 7, 2020 5:29 am
Sen. Marsha Blackburn at podium

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 27: Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Policy Conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center Auditorium June 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. Created as a bridge between conservative Tea Party movement and evangelical voters, the Faith and Freedom Coalition was founded by Christian conservative activist Ralph Reed in 2009. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U. S. Senator from Tennessee Marsha Blackburn recently has been obsessed with one topic—social media platforms and their supposed unfairness to right-wingers.  She spent an inordinate amount of time and space in her Nov. 20 newsletter flogging the point.  She included five clips of herself (one from a congressional hearing, one from the Senate floor, two from Fox Business, and one from Bloomberg News) totaling more than 41 minutes of her lambasting “big tech” for censorship.

The U. S. Supreme Court has made it clear that our First Amendment is a speaker’s right to present views, not really an audience’s right to hear views.  Thus, you cannot successfully sue your local newspaper to carry your letter to the editor, or to compel a blogger to post your retort.  You can appeal on an ethical level to present a range of views—but government compulsion isn’t going to happen, and shouldn’t when we’re talking about abusing government power to stop social media firms from acting to counter falsehoods.  It tells you something about the veracity of radical-right arguments that devotees like Marsha Blackburn are afraid of routine fact checking.

The Blackburn gripe derives from a trio of media misrepresentations that date from the first time Fox News arose from its primordial ooze of hate and declared itself “fair and balanced,” implying others were not.  The first foible is the elevation of fairness and balance to primacy in journalism.  The first and foremost principle of all journalism is, or should be, accuracy.

Fairness and balance are secondary virtues that can cause problems when pushed too far.  Imagine if your local TV newscast declared, “Next on News Nine, the shape of the Earth.  The Flat-Earth Society challenges the deep state consensus of a sphere.  We let you decide.”

Everyone who has systematically looked at the content of social media, from Media Matters to the Cato Institute to former Republican Sen. Jon Kyleighs, has found absolutely no evidence of anti-conservative bias.

– U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii

The second error in the Blackburn gripe is that is places nearly everything on a left-right political scale.  Many ideas do not fit well on that scale, and some are best analyzed as right-wrong.  Blackburn overlooks the right-wrong scale when blustering at congressional hearings, badgering witnesses, and babbling about bias.  Right-wing messages get flags, labels, and occasional item removals because some have been telling demonstrably untrue whoppers—Facebook falsehoods, Twitter lies, and debunked conspiracy videos.

The final error in the terrible trio is argument by anecdote.  Blackburn blurts stories and suggests they be taken as strong proof.  Any contrary point is dismissed because of some perceived flaw of the “other side.”  Sadly, this what-aboutism is what passes for argument, and is adopted by others as acceptable technique.  Of course, there are much better levels of supporting information, namely descriptive statistics and well-done studies.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, made that point this past month during hearings.  She reminded us, “Everyone who has systematically looked at the content of social media, from Media Matters to the Cato Institute to former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, has found absolutely no evidence of anti-conservative bias. And data from CrowdTangle show that far-right content from the likes of Fox News, Ben Shapiro, [and Dan] Bongino dominates the daily top ten most engaged pages on Facebook…So the way I see it, this hearing is a transparent effort by my Republican colleagues to work the refs.”

Thank you, Mazie Hirono.  Let’s all make sure Marsha Blackburn doesn’t badger social media refs into cowering to her blather.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.