Guns and social media have several things in common. Many people enjoy them responsibly, but in the wrong hands they are dangerous. However, both enjoy unfair public support in the form of legal protections regarding the actions of their users. That cannot last forever.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter boss Jack Dorsey appeared before US senators on Tuesday to justify censorship of political content. At issue is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally allows social media to disregard user messages, while also giving them the freedom to flag content as “objectionable”.
That law, which helped Facebook go from being a startup to being worth $ 800 billion, now in practice makes Zuckerberg and Dorsey arbiters on when content represents a danger to society.
Gunsmiths also benefit from bulletproof legislation: the Lawful Trade in Arms Protection Act (PLCAA). It basically prevents victims of gun violence from holding the gun manufacturers responsible. But the PLCAA means that companies like Smith & Wesson and Remington may not include simple life-saving features, such as indicators that show when a firearm is loaded. That omission costs lives. In 2020 there have been nearly 250 unintentional shootings by American children, according to the nonprofit Everytown For Gun Safety.
Without these shields, both industries would change radically. Gun rights advocates say that without PLCAA, a sector of 47,000 workers would go bankrupt. That is probably hyperbole. But lawsuits and security measures would impose legal costs and make the weapons more expensive to produce.
For social media, more active moderation would mean more employees. Users would have to get more used to the idea that their posts on Facebook or Twitter are not free.
Section 230 could change during President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, judging from Tuesday’s hearing before lawmakers. Not the PLCAA. Even if Democrats wanted to overturn it, they would need the support of 60 out of 100 senators to get it to a vote.
But the crony capitalism of the PLCAA, and a shift among voters toward more gun rules, suggests there will be a reckoning. The incoming Senate, for example, includes gun safety advocates Mark Kelly of Arizona and John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
Facebook and Twitter have an advantage over gunsmiths. They know that their legal impunity is threatened and they are trying to get ahead of the problem. Dorsey and Zuckerberg have welcomed the Section 230 changes. That’s prudent, because they can help reset the rules. Compared to gunsmiths, they will be better equipped to survive when their magical armor is removed.