Donald Trump recently promised to block AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner and break up the previously approved Comcast-NBC merger. He claimed that an overly-consolidated media tells “the voters what to think and what to do.” His economic advisor Peter Navarro elaborated, “Donald Trump will break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies that have gained enormous control over our information” and that the “oligopolistic realignment of the American media along ideological and corporate lines is destroying an American democracy that depends on a free flow of information and freedom of thought.”
Because Trump frequently criticizes the media, many have taken his calls for stricter antitrust enforcement as evidence that he’d use his executive power to “personally try to harm his enemies,” as Vox’s Libby Nelson put it. University of Texas Law professor Robert Chesney tweeted it was further “evidence of how Trump would try to abuse executive power—in this case antitrust enforcement–to suppress criticism.”
Trump, however, did not propose retaliating against companies who criticized him, but rather claimed that media consolidation has led to a biased system with a monolithic viewpoint. This is not a unique concern. In 2007, then senators Barack Obama and John Kerry argued that the “thoughtful exchange of diverse viewpoints not only helps guarantee our freedom as individuals, it ensures those in power can be held accountable for all that they do” but “large mergers and corporate deals have reduced the number of voices and viewpoints in the media marketplace.” Moreover, the FCC must consider this when determining whether a telecommunications merger promotes the public interest. The 1992 Cable Act establishes “there is a substantial governmental and First Amendment interest in promoting a diversity of views provided through multiple technology media” and the 1996 Telecommunications Act required the FCC to eliminate barriers to create more “diversity of media voices.”This being said, the vertical-mergers Trump singled out are not the biggest culprits responsible for reducing viewpoint diversity. AT&T and Comcast primarily provide cable and internet access while NBC and Time Warner produce media content. While the merged companies could favor certain content creators, they do not directly reduce the number of media voices.
More importantly, the internet has dramatically expanded media competition. CNN does not just compete against MSNBC and Fox News, but thousands of internet news sources. While it once took large investments to start a television station, now anyone with a smartphone can post a video on YouTube or Facebook. The Blaze’s 24-year-old Trump supporter Tomi Lahren receives an average of five million views for each of her videos, more than the highest rated cable news program. More millennials get their news from social media that from television.
Social media is an ostensibly open platform. For example, Twitter’s mission statement is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” However, all major platforms have implemented hate speech policies and have not limited them to neo-Nazi trolls. Twitter has banned prominent conservative voices like Milo Yiannopoulos while former Facebook staff admitted they suppressed conservative content. Many Facebook employees advocated removing Donald Trump’s posts as hate speech, though Mark Zuckerberg admirably pushed back.
While social media companies can enable more ideological diversity, they also have enormous market power and naturally become oligopolies. Social media is the textbook case of “network effects”—where a service’s value increases with the number of users. There is no value in being on a social network where you are the only user. Thus ninety percent of those who get news from social media only use one or two sites.
More media consolidation will likely increase censorship. Twitter is currently looking for bidders. Its formerly top suitors Disney and Salesforce reportedly backed out over concerns with Twitter’s perceived failure to crackdown on abusive tweets. No company has the obligation to tolerate threats and harassment. However, most social media platforms have vague regulations that they apply unevenly.
Trump correctly highlighted how mergers can entrench media groupthink and bias, but strengthening antitrust enforcement against older telecommunications companies would only put a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Unlike cable and broadcast mergers, antitrust regulators do not consider viewpoint diversity with social media companies. Only new legislation, creative legal and regulatory remedies, or a major shift in corporate attitudes towards free speech will make social media live up to its promise as an open platform where everyone can compete equally in the marketplace of ideas.