If the government shouldn't meddle in business then shouldn't Facebook be allowed to do as they please? I understand if they criticize Facebook or use some other platforms. But why would they want to use government power to attack a private company? How can "not meddling in private business" and "breaking up a private business" go together?
Republicans cannot just "use other platforms" because of the network effect. Everyone is already on Facebook, Twitter, et. al. So say die-hard Republicans all go to Parler. Now they're in a bubble. Who are they convincing in the long-term debate that is public discourse? Everyone on Parler already agrees with them. The whole point behind the public square is that there is only one. If there's more than one, it doesn't work.
And even if they do all go to some other platform, that platform just gets attacked/destroyed by allies of Facebook/Twitter/Youtube. Payment processors drop them, DNS providers cut their service, Web hosts take them down for allowing dangerous content. Meanwhile nobody drops Facebook et. al. even though similar content is posted regularly. So saying that conservatives should just use other sites is tantamount to saying conservatives should just build an entire parallel tech ecosystem. In Gab's case they're actually doing this; they own their own webhosting equipment, I believe they do their own payment processing, they distribute their app and browser on their own site. But then the mainstream media steps in and declares that Gab is populated almost solely by neo-nazis. That might be true, but it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me; are you, someone who is not a nazi, going to try out a social media site you have heard is full of nazis? Seems doubtful. So once again the network effect shows up.
So what other recourse do they have? Ending Section 230 entirely seems like a poor idea to me, but some reforms seem possible. Maybe make sites above a certain size utilities? Let them keep their monopoly but require some public oversight in exchange? Threatening to end Section 230 could be the "big ask" in a negotiation strategy actually aimed at this or similar reform.
(Caveat: The Republican Party is nowhere near the monolith it works so hard to appear as.)
As the Republican party has fallen more and more in-line with Trumpism (which, really, predates Trump and goes back at least as far as Nixon, but definitely surged in visibility with the ascendancy of Trump) vengeance has become more and more of a political value to them. In many respects the costs of inflicting that vengeance are immaterial - even if it involves violations of other values claimed to be held. The manifestation is not unlike that of Mutually Assured Destruction: "If you cross me, I'll kill us both." From a purely rational perspective it comes off a little unhinged, but it's an extremely intimidating statement and makes presenting opposition very dangerous.
The problem is, if someone then crosses you, and you don't murder-suicide? Then people know you're bluffing and the whole thing comes apart. Therefore, to the greatest extent you can manage, once you've taken that stance, it becomes desperately important to carry out retributive acts as violently, viciously, and completely as possible in order to maintain a general understanding that you mean it. In Game Theory this is known as establishing the credibility of your threat:
A non-credible threat is made on the hope that it will be believed, and therefore the threatening undesirable action will not need to be carried out. For a threat to be credible within an equilibrium, whenever a node is reached where a threat should be fulfilled, it will be fulfilled.
(Wikipedia, "Non-Credible Threat")
A career military officer respects the power of Congress (as he swore to) and testifies before one of their committees in ways that the administration doesn't like? Fire him for literally doing the one thing you want soldiers to always do: his job.
Someone suggests that a bipartisan commission to investigate the causes of a violent uprising that claimed the lives of public servants and threatened you, personally? Kick her out of party leadership, even though you're the 'law and order' party.
More and more, the Republican party has given itself over to an iron fisted approach to leadership and governance. Facebook's ban of Donald Trump, the current de facto leader of the party until such a time as he declares he's not going to run in 2024, can be viewed as a challenge to the party - especially since challenging Trump, himself, is the linking theme in the examples given. Trying to rip Facebook, a company who "silenced" their leader, apart is entirely in line with this trend in leadership style.
The Republican Party
Historically the Republican party has been a big tent which deliberately sets out to include a wide range of opinions on the political right. As a result there are, roughly speaking, two main wings in the Republican Party:
Libertarians, who oppose big government , support tax cuts and gay rights, want to see an end to the drug war, cut back the military, rein in the police, and open the country to immigration. These are the people who say "just let business do it's thing". (They also detest Donald Trump).
Culture Warriors who want more military spending, oppose any controls on the police, and want lots of government action against anyone they define as "Bad", including drug dealers, abortion clinics, immigrants, and at the more extreme end, teachers of evolution, gay people, Black Lives Matter demonstrators, Muslims, blacks, Jews, environmentalists, name it. These people don't care about the Libertarian position on anything; they just want the government to go after the Bad People.
(I'm simplifying. The situation on the ground is obviously more complicated, with some people shading between the two groups, and others who just nod when one of these talking points is on Fox News without really thinking it through).
Historically these two groups have been able to get along inside the Republican Party. The Libertarians are in the minority so they don't get everything they want, but by staying in the tent they can have a bigger influence than if they were outside.
However Donald Trump's campaign aimed squarely at the Culture Warrior wing and ignored the libertarians. Many of them decided he was a Great Man, leaving the libertarians are even more sidelined than usual. The libertarians will carry on voting Republican regardless, because to their mind its better than voting Democrat. Hence Republican politicians play to the Culture Warriors because they are the people who will vote for the winners in the Primaries.
As long as social media was not an issue in the Culture Wars Republican politicians could just ignore it, or take the Libertarian line if need be. But once social media became an issue it was the Culture Warrior take on it that drove the response, not the libertarian one.
What made social media an issue in the Culture Wars were the moderation rules. Computer geeks often lean libertarian, and the people who came out on top of the Internet boom are no exception. They envisaged social media as being enlightened places where people of good will could discuss the important issues of the day and arrive at consensus. They were disappointed. Practical experience repeatedly demonstrated that this doesn't work, so the social media companies were forced to institute moderation policies and delete things they felt that their users were not going to like (because if people don't like what they read on your site they are going to go somewhere else, advertisers won't pay you, and bang goes your Unicorn).
(Aside: I'm going to stick with "moderation" here. "Censorship" means government action to suppress speech. Its the difference between "You can't say that" and "You can't say that here".)
The trouble with moderation (and censorship for that matter) is that, no matter how well intentioned you are, you always wind up looking stupid and petty (Can we call that "Johnson's Law of Censorship"?). This situation is worsened for the social media companies because the sheer volume of material, combined with a desire to keep the costs under control, means that much of the moderation is done by low-paid individuals working under extreme time pressure, and there is no effective recourse if you feel aggrieved by their decisions.
The social media companies decided that hatred and incitements to violence were off-limits, and hence inevitably wound up making decisions on them that could be considered stupid and petty, especially by the people on the receiving end. These tended to be more on the Republican side because the extreme end of the Republican party tends to like the idea of violence against the Bad People. From there it was a very short hop to "Nobody could be that stupid and petty by accident, so it must be a secret company policy to block us".
This belief was reinforced by discussion of "shadow banning". Republicans came to believe that their views were deliberately being given reduced prominence in Twitter. The trouble is that, absent a leaked memo or whistleblower, these allegations are very difficult to prove or disprove. However they rapidly became a staple of mainstream Culture Warrior thought. (The Left also complains of unequal treatment, but the Republican Culture Warriors ignore this).
Which brings us to the current situation. The big social media companies effectively control the boundaries of much of the discourse in our society. Culture Warriors don't like this because they don't like the place they believe those boundaries to be. Libertarians also regard this as problematic for more principled reasons. And so the Republican party wants to see government control of the social media companies.
Parler was another attempt at this (and a more principled one at that; if you don't like the rules build your own place with the rules you prefer). However they rapidly learned that you will have moderation, and you will wind up looking stupid and petty.
Allow me to preface this by noting that breaking up or regulating large social media companies might in fact be a good idea. It's patently unwise to leave major social and political issues to be resolved by a handful of individuals who own or work for private organizations. I'm not suggesting that Republicans are taking such a high-minded philosophical view, but the point is worth bearing in mind.
That said, a prominent subgroup of conservatives — including certain Republicans politicians and leaders — have fully adopted a 'swift boating' model for political campaigns. 'Swift boating' is (in essence) guerrilla warfare tactics applied to politics. It relies on motivating small, insular, radicalized partisan groups to make sudden, unexpected media attacks against political opponents. These groups then disappear into the background before anyone can identify them, question the veracity or morality of their attacks, or hold them accountable for lies, distortions, slanderous comments, or other offensive practices. Like all guerrilla warfare, it's designed to give a small minority an oversized voice, throwing the opposing camp into disarray as it tries to defend against what amount to ghosts.
This tactic reached its height during the Trump administration. The constant stream of lies, misinformation, insults, conspiracy theories, crowd-sourced assertions, and rampant innuendo — from both the White House and innumerable political and extra-political sources — kept the nation in a constant state of anxious trepidation. It was guerrilla warfare against reality itself, and against our political norms and institutions in particular. It was extremely effective at installing conservatives into political office, usually on the assertion that only conservatives can save us from the anxiety-driven delusions that these 'swift boating' efforts created, and so the GOP wants to maintain and defend these practices.
Social media platforms were the primary vectors of this type of guerrilla politics up to and through the Trump era. Early on, conservatives were willing to look the other way or even actively endorse the laissez-faire policies of Facebook, Twitter, instagram, and such, because so long as these companies studiously ignored 'swift boating' tactics, they worked to GOP advantage. Running up to the 2020 election, however, these companies started cracking down on guerrilla tactics: tagging, flagging, and censoring the worst of the lies, disinformation, and conspiratorial content. And so now this class of conservatives wants to break up any social media company that inhibits the ability of small, radicalized groups to stage hit-and-run attacks on political opponents. They want to shift power to some of the smaller Right-wing-oriented social media sites that expressly allow these kinds of guerrilla tactics, because those tactics are the entire basis of the Right's political power.
There's a serious philosophical discussion to be had about whether any political party should be so dependent on 'swift boating' tactics to retain power, and the damage this kind of guerrilla warfare does to democratic institutions as a whole. And it's worth wondering where the line between guerrilla tactics and outright terrorism ought to be drawn. But those discussions are for other threads...
The Republicans are reacting logically to their de facto leader being banned from Facebook and Twitter. If a top Democratic leader managed to get themselves banned from Facebook and Twitter, then you can bet there'd be a ton of pressure to put FB back in its place.
Start with the idea that FB is often seen, on all sides of the political spectrum, with less than total goodwill.
Second, while this ban is not government censorship, it isn't quite the same as Trump not getting airtime on CNN to speak his mind or interviews in the Washington Post. No one would expect those media outlets to be forced to give a voice to Trump. Just like no one would expect sympathetic coverage of AOC by Fox News.
The difference is there is one FB, and one Twitter, due to network effects, as cited by RyanL.
For a person who relied as heavily on social media as Trump (even if that was Twitter rather than FB), this is a dramatic downturn.
If you believe that there was no good reason for this ban, as many Republicans do, then it would make sense to pressure FB and Twitter to let him back on. To do that, what better way than hitching on to the monopoly breakup wagon that usually follows FB and Google discourse?
If you are Republican and instead believe that the ban was justified or that Trump shouldn't be leader, you might well look at Liz Cheney's recent ousting and keep your mouth shut.
Note that I am not giving an opinion on whether the ban was justified or not in this answer. That's not necessary, though I did make a comment elsewhere indicating my view.
"Not meddling in private business" doesn't apply to monopolies which are to be broken up under Sherman's antitrust act.
Whether Facebook is a monopoly or not is open to debate (e.g. it holds about 70% of "social media" market according to statcounter). Attacking Facebook under the act designed to protect consumers when Facebook decided to ban Trump is also somewhat unethical. But it doesn't automatically make Facebook immune to allegations of being a monopoly, and "breaking up monopolies" is not incompatible with the "not meddling in private business" position in general.
Although I agree that there's nothing noble (or internally consistent) about Republican motivations for breaking up or otherwise regulating social media, let's apply the principle of charity for a moment and recognize that it's pretty normal for a functional political movement to have to make practical compromises between two values which come into tension (even if it's fun for the rest of us to dunk on them for hypocrisy when they do).
Here, the apparent conflict between the principle of
"Let's not overreach with government power to put burdensome regulations on businesses and job creators"
and the practice of
isn't even that hard to rationalize. Modern conservatives prize freedom of expression (for themselves if not necessarily for conflicting viewpoints) at least as much as they do free markets. You don't have to be remotely sympathetic to the glorification of violence that got Trump de-platformed to recognize that when the metaphorical "free marketplace of ideas" is captured by an oligopoly to the degree pictured below in 2019 (and probably more so in 2021), it's not really free any more:
I mean, look at those numbers. Facebook accounts for almost 70% of all social media - more, if you account for the fact that they own Instagram. Platforms other than the big five listed above only have 2% of the total social media market share. Even the most absolutist libertarians would probably acknowledge that, in the presence of such oligopolies, the attractive features of free markets which convert people to absolutist libertarianism are compromised or altogether absent, and that government has a necessary and appropriate role in curbing such anti-competitive behavior.
Especially because nowadays there are people who make their livelihoods off of these platforms, and losing a platform can be career-ending, it's just not healthy to have so much power over who gets a megaphone and who doesn't, concentrated in the hands of four or five wealthy, nearly unaccountable corporations.
So a clever Republican could argue that, far from imposing burdensome regulations on the free market (of ideas or otherwise), they're actually taking steps to preserve its freedom, like the Florida Lt. Governor Jeanette Nuñez does in this statement on Florida Senate Bill 7072, which among other things, aims to prohibit social media platforms from de-platforming any candidate for public office:
"Today, by signing SB 7072 into law, Florida is taking back the virtual public square as a place where information and ideas can flow freely. ... Thankfully in Florida we have a Governor that fights against big tech oligarchs that contrive, manipulate, and censor"
Notice, of course, that my pull quote elided a lot of fearmongering balderdash -- right-wing shibboleths about communism, Venezuela, Cuba and the "radical leftist narratives" that big corporations are pushing (as if) -- but even if the true ulterior motive is virtue signaling to a recently deplatformed audience of one, Republicans also have access to more bipartisan arguments on the value of restricting or breaking up Big Tech.
Another line of thinking that has considerable emotional appeal on the right goes like this: Conservatives are the biggest champions and defenders of capitalism, therefore there's an unspoken "scratch-my-back" contract between conservatives and big businesses that big business violates when it works with liberals, or when it penalizes conservatives for expressing their conservative views (you know the ones), and so conservatives are justified in penalizing businesses when they violate this "gentleman's agreement".
But again, this is more of an emotional/ethical appeal along the lines of I-thought-we-were-friends, how-could-you-do-me-like-this, than a logical/moral argument that it's OK to burden the free market with regulations if you don't like how the free market is using its freedom.
Republicans have adopted a strategy called "working the refs" when it comes to social media:
But while it was a quintessentially 2020 exchange, the gripe voiced by Representative Greg Steube was also a classic example of a politician “working the refs” — that is, complaining vocally about a referee’s decision in the hopes of getting a better call next time. It’s a tactic the Trump movement has revived and deftly employed against the powerful, befuddled new referees of public debate, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
This is not a new strategy, Republicans have employed it against traditional media for decades. Complaints of a biased "liberal media" have long been used to deflect attention from the party's failures ("And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/neoconservative publicist in America, has come clean on this issue. 'I admit it,' he told a reporter. 'The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.') and to create pressure for more favorable coverage in the future.
Or Pat Buchanan, during his presidential campaign: "I've gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage -- all we could have asked. For heaven's sakes, we kid about the 'liberal media,' but every Republican on earth does that."
By relentlessly "kidding" about the "liberal media," Republicans create an environment that encourages their followers to distrust mainstream media outlets and pressures those outlets to compensate in their editorial decisions in an attempt to avoid further claims of bias.
By focusing so much attention on the moderation policies of social media platforms, Republicans aim to obtain more sympathetic treatment in the future:
As a political strategy, “playing the ref” dates back at least to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, in which Goldwater handed out “Eastern liberal press” pins to journalists. It reached fever pitch during the paranoid years of the Nixon administration, saw great success in Reagan-era arguments against the fairness doctrine and has remained critical to the GOP playbook in the decades since. Explaining the tactic in 2003, Eric Alterman wrote, “Their mau-mauing the other side is just a good way to get their own ideas across — or perhaps prevent the other side from getting a fair hearing for theirs.” Indeed, as with sports, the more you play the ref, the more hesitant the ref will be to make calls against you — and may even rule in your favor.
Threatening to break up Facebook is an extension of that strategy. It's a threat that's most effective if not carried out, because it can be threatened again and again in future situations. If Facebook (and their competitors) know that every major decision they make involving Republican-related content will be the subject of sustained right-wing media attention, questions and statements from Republican elected officials, and threats of state action against their company, well that's the sort of thing that just might make them think twice before acting.
And that hesitation might mean more deference for prominent Republican users even if they violate platform policies or more distribution for right-wing media outlets even if they violate information quality policies.
I feel all these answers presume a direct intentional plot from republican leadership, usually depicted them in the most negative light possible. I disagree with this, I believe the sentiments that lead to calling out Facebook grew from the ground up, rather then being dictated by republican leadership.
I believe the disagreement with Facebook is due to the intersection of two areas exasperating each other. The first issue was what originally amounted to a relatively minor conspiracy theory that social media was silencing conservative voices intentionally. This theory had been circulating well before trump, though it didn't seem to have nearly as much backing before. It's hard to trace the origin of conspiracy theories, but most likely this was caused mainly by confirmation bias caused by conservatives already suspecting social media (due to technological companies leaning heavily democratic and conservatives simply having less trust of technology and the internet in general). Put simply conservatives figured a liberal company would want to silence them, so any time there was any issue with a conservative voice on social media, even if it was a minor bug or purely on the side of the content producer and not at all associated with the platform, some people were quick to presuming the issue was intentional silencing of conservatives. The fact that liberals are more likely to use social media in general, and as such there likely are more liberal voices then conservative on the platform, may have further contributed to this.
As I said this conspiracy theory had been lingering in the background for some time, but it generally wasn't getting much attention prior to Trumps election. To discuss why it became more prominent we now need to take a segue into discussing misinformation on social media.
To put it simply social media is ripe with misinformation, including false political claims. This is by no means limited to this election, or to one party. For quite awhile now misinformation and false claims have been spreading through social media; though Trumps election, and specifically Russia's intentional exploitation of social media to spread misinformation in support of Trump, brought far more media attention to it.
While both sides have been guilty of misinformation, I can point you to plenty of democratic supporting false claims, with the rise of Trumpism misinformation spreading through primarily conservative channels saw a heavy uptick. There are a multitude of factors that explain why Trumpism lead to an increase in this trend, but mostly they trace back to Trump himself. Trump appears to have been a regular consumer, and believer, of some of the more extreme conspiracy theories and other misinformation, judging from conspiracy's he repeated and his tendency to site sources known for conspiracy theories or misinformation. With Trump elevated to the most prominent position in the USA he started to cite and spread that information.
Republicans don't have a good relationship with mainstream media to put it mildly. Nevertheless, they were able in recent years to adjust to circumvent them and shift to new media. The argument by people who claim that they are not censored there, circulates around the fact that they were doing fine there anyway. So lacking mainstream media and having a hampered presence in new media forces them to look for a solution. Let's say that the way in which Parler was crushed doesn't make them think that they deal with anything even resembling fair play.
For any long-term strategy, they should strive for equal access to media, or advocate for the balkanization of Internet platforms. If they fail this move, their effective strategy would have to rely on using minor alt-tech platforms, for extra irony foreign ones (BitChute, Telegram, etc.).
Indeed, ideology was hampering them for their move, so they remained inactive for a while. Ability to silence some damning information in a key moment (like, for example, interesting business information from Hunter Biden's laptop as based on polls, a sixth of Biden's supporters wouldn't have voted for him had they known of it) presumably cost Trump his reelection.
In summary, breaking up Facebook makes Republican news sources more prominent, which will help them politically.