Illustration by William Joel | Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The Republican Party has new villains but no battle plans. Brendan Carr is plotting their path forward.
Ted Cruz was shouting at Jack Dorsey.
“Who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?” The Republican senator from Texas was yelling at the Twitter CEO during a congressional hearing on speech moderation on Wednesday. According to Cruz, Twitter, Facebook, and Google represented “the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.”
The moment could have passed as just another empty symbol of the culture war: a GOP politician insisting against all evidence that conservatives are censored online. But as the Republican war on Big Tech intensifies, conservatives have embraced the idea of directly regulating speech on social media in ways that would have once been unthinkable for the party of small government. The Trump administration has already laid the legal groundwork for the Federal Communications Commission to regulate social media, and it seems a lock that a Trump reelection would bring with it a new role for the agency: national internet moderator.
No one is better prepared for this moment than Brendan Carr, a career telecom lawyer appointed as FCC Commissioner by Donald Trump, whose personal transformation from free-market conservative exhorting “light touch” regulations of internet providers to fiery MAGA warrior raging on Twitter has intensified as his chances of being appointed chairman of the FCC have gone up.
“Since the 2016 election, the far left has worked to weaponize social media platforms,” he told Fox News in May. “What we’re seeing now is that that campaign is bearing fruit, and Twitter, among others, decided to engage in partisan political debates, taking on the president directly.” A measured way of saying what the far right had been claiming for years: that tech giants, stationed in the liberal stronghold of Silicon Valley, were censoring conservative voices.
Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has led the agency for nearly four years, and it’s unclear how much longer he plans to stay on. A Trump win carries a high likelihood that Carr will be selected — not elected — as the next chairman. And his first task will certainly be to regulate social media in America.
On May 26th, Trump tweeted, “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.” Twitter labeled the tweet as misleading, marking the first time the platform had taken any action to tell its users a claim might be false.
Conservatives immediately accused Twitter of pushing a liberal agenda, evoking violations of free speech and censorship. It didn’t matter that the tweet was still up, albeit with a label attached. In subsequent days, Trump signed an executive order instructing the FCC to rework Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the controversial law that encourages platforms to moderate content by shielding them from liability for what users post. The executive order was transparently written to punish social media companies over the actions they took on Trump’s tweets; the order also placed the future of online content moderation right on the FCC’s doorstep.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel responded to the petition by saying: “Social media can be frustrating but turning the FCC into the President’s speech police is not the answer.” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, was decidedly restrained in his own statements about the order. The only Republican FCC commissioner to speak out with First Amendment concerns about the order, Mike O’Rielly, had his nomination for an additional term revoked. (Trump instead nominated a junior telecom lawyer, Nathan Simington, to replace O’Rielly. Sources told me at the time that Simington played a key role in drafting the Trump administration’s petition to the FCC.)
Carr welcomed the order with open arms, with an appearance on Fox News.
“If these entities want to act as political actors, like everyone who has First Amendment rights can do, then I think that raises questions about whether they should be getting special treatment above and beyond any other political actor that’s out there,” he said.
Carr is by no means a household name, even if he now beams into tens of thousands of television screens during regular appearances on Fox primetime shows like Tucker Carlson Tonight. But for DC tech policy wonks, the FCC commissioner — and potential chairman-in-waiting — has offered varying and sometimes inconsistent opinions about the extent to which he plans to regulate social networks. Reining in the moderation policies of some of America’s most successful and lucrative companies means admitting that the future of GOP telecom policy now involves a lot of something the party has abhorred in the past: significant government intervention into the operation of private companies.
And yet, Republicans are closing in on installing the FCC as the default regulator to keep the social platforms in line as their preferred answer. It’s a huge shift back to the days of regulating content on TV and radio for the agency, which has focused heavily on internet access and telecom policy for over a decade — and for the Republicans on it, who have traditionally insisted on a market-driven “light-touch” approach to regulation. But while many right-wing telecom wonks are backing away from the platform fight, Carr appears to be leaning into it to grab Trump’s attention — all the while, showing Washington what a Republican social media regulator could look like.
Even with a Joe Biden victory, Carr’s position at the FCC means he is likely to lead the GOP’s policy war on Big Tech for the foreseeable future, and he’s prepped and ready for the long haul. He regularly chats with politicians about how to revise Section 230, one of the most pivotal internet speech laws in legislation.
Since Carr was appointed as an FCC Commissioner in 2017 after a stint in Pai’s office, he has slowly ramped up his self-promotion — and his philosophical distance from Pai. He started with videos of himself wearing a hard hat and climbing a cell tower — a classic politician’s photo op to appear folksy and down-to-earth. Then he began appearing on Fox News, making mild-mannered arguments to Tucker Carlson and Neil Cavuto. The next step: further right-leaning media, like Breitbart or Charlie Kirk’s podcast, Turning Point, remaining steadfast in his buttoned-up demeanor even when discussing wild shadowbanning conspiracies. Carr is good at meeting conservatives on their level, modulating himself depending on the audience.
In June, Politico published a profile of Carr under the headline “Trump’s unexpected ally in the fight against tech.” In it, Politico laid out several instances in which Carr has aligned himself with the president, not just over tech policy but also bashing the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response and one of Trump’s foremost Democratic enemies, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA).
The Brendan Carr who speaks to reporters is polished, repeating prepared remarks that mirror exact language from op-eds he’s written. When we chat, I catch many of the same talking points I’ve heard him say before. And even if his tenor with right-wing reactionaries is balanced, it’s troublesome to see him interacting with them at all — especially if he is set to helm the future of free expression online.
Carr is loudest on Twitter, where he mirrors the president’s provocations against social media platforms. He often rages against “far left” hoaxes. After Twitter first labeled Trump’s mail-in voting tweet in May, Carr posted a screenshot of a tweet from comedian Kathy Griffin advocating for someone to stab Trump with “a syringe full of air.” It wasn’t labeled like Trump’s tweet, so Carr suggested Twitter was biased in how it imposes its rules.
Twitter has abandoned any attempt at a good faith application of its rules.
No one should take comfort in that.
Here it is punishing speakers based on whether it approves or disapproves of their politics. pic.twitter.com/adlfFTUUaJ
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) May 29, 2020
Carr’s tweets and trolly rhetoric have been cause for alarm in the conservative DC tech policy community.
But others insist Carr is just putting on an act. He will “say some fierce things on Twitter and in interviews,” a source familiar with him told me over the summer. “But when people call him out on it, like when I’ve mentioned it on Twitter, for example, it will often generate a back channel conversation, which is often more moderate.”
When asked about these more civil, private conversations, Carr said, “I think the medium that these conversations take place matters.” He went on: “But that’s part of why I’ve tried to branch out and do podcasts and longer-form interviews. I do think that helps spin out some of my positions to reflect the nuance that is really there.”
I asked Carr if all of these media appearances with Trump’s most-favored pundits were simply a well-plotted political maneuver, an attempt at attaining chairmanship in a second Trump term. The president has retweeted at least one of Carr’s Fox News interviews about reining in Big Tech. His son, Donald Trump Jr., is also a fan of Carr’s work, often retweeting his more MAGA-oriented tweets. Carr demurred.
“I get that we’re kind of in sort of a silly season. Everyone views things through that lens. I think we need to take a broader perspective of what’s going on with respect to the conservative movement in Big Tech.” He continued, “Part of my job, since I believe in this stuff as a public interest matter, is to advocate and build consensus for that.”
Carr says he’s thinking past the Trump administration: the future of his party hinges on reforming Section 230.
Carr’s perspective on 230 reform has changed over the last few weeks and months, but he articulated it most clearly in an op-ed for Newsweek in July, conveniently published as the FCC awaited the arrival of the long-anticipated petition from the Trump administration. In it, Carr declared that companies like Facebook and Twitter should be required to be more transparent about their moderation decisions and that the Federal Trade Commission should enforce new transparency and accountability standards. Congress revoking 230, or the FCC reinterpreting it, was clearly just the beginning. Carr is plotting out a multipronged approach to social media regulation that goes far and beyond what Congress plans to do.
“Reforming 230 is just the start. That’s just step one,” Carr told me. “We need to go beyond 230 reform. We need to strengthen the tools we have in antitrust. We need to adopt new transparency rules that would be outside of the 230 framework.”
I asked Carr whether these proposals were at odds with mainstream conservatism. Does the right’s threats against tech mean that the future of the GOP is pro-regulation now?
Carr got dodgy. “There is a way to talk about this as a continuation of conservative principles,” he argued. “We stand against concentrations of power that are going to limit freedom and limit individual liberty. You can very neatly draw a thread from traditional, Reagan-era, conservative principles all the way through where we should stand on Big Tech.”
And then he conceded a little, before dodging again: “You may describe it as more regulatory. I don’t necessarily quibble with your framing. I can frame it as a rejection of abject corporatism.”
He says these standards are similar to what the Pai FCC put in place for ISPs as the agency rolled back net neutrality: transparency requirements and a greater role for the FTC. But the rollback of net neutrality, at least, aligned with the traditional Republican values of not intervening with big business, only monitoring it, and it was rooted in a lengthy (and still-ongoing) debate about the classification of ISPs as utility providers. No one thinks Facebook or Twitter are utilities. And directly policing the moderation policies on those platforms is far more fraught with First Amendment risks than telling AT&T and other ISPs to treat all of the bits on their networks equally — which Carr fiercely opposed doing.
For this reason, Carr’s statements and increased media profile have prompted many accusations of hypocrisy. “These folks think that basic protections that prevent internet service providers from blocking websites are burdens of government regulation and yet they want the federal government to micromanage online platforms’ speech policies,” says Evan Greer, deputy director for Fight for the Future.
The USA doesn’t have Freedom of the Press, we have Suppression of the Story, or just plain Fake News. So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2020
Under Trump, conservatives were handed a slate of new villains. First, it was immigrants. Then, the “fake news” media. Later, China. But the GOP may have found its most effective target in Big Tech since even Democrats agree that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are too powerful.
Critique of corporate power has long been at the center of a progressive worldview, championed by politicians like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). And for decades, the Republican Party has been the standard-bearer of a conservative movement ushered in by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; a libertarian economic ideology grounded in limiting government power and celebrating free markets, even as corporations got larger and more powerful.
But as it became clear that Trump would secure the Republican Party’s nomination in 2016, everything changed. Trump discarded the traditional conservative orthodoxies of free trade and small government, remaking the party in his image in a matter of months. Trump’s conservatism is based around class and ethnic nationalism, ideas that have been tucked into the shadows of the Republican Party since Reagan. Under Trump, they’ve reemerged as the party’s primary focus. Libertarian-minded Republicans have been forced to ride the wave of Trumpism or be left behind.
Not every politician has been deft enough to make the shift. Figures like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have been pushed out of the party entirely. Others like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) have moved from the center of the party to the fringes. Still others, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), have seized the moment, drawing power and profile from the new populist wave. When Carr talks about the changes in the party, it’s clear he hopes to place himself in that last group.
“I think there is this extreme or abject corporatism that I don’t think is right for the conservative movement,” Carr told me. “I think there is this broader realignment going on.”
Before 2019, discussions over tech regulation were dominated by the Democrats. The fallout of the 2016 presidential election paired with Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 breathed new life into latent efforts to protect user data privacy. But as these legislative efforts ramped up, they supercharged a Republican response grounded in free-market thinking, preempting state-led regulations and protecting corporations from data malpractice lawsuits. Any bipartisan effort at tech regulation ground to a halt.
But the fresh skepticism cast toward tech laid the groundwork for the populist right to take their own big swings at large tech platforms, and nationalist conservative influencers and activists like Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos had already riled Trump’s base over the perceived censorship of social media platforms as well. They built careers on social media where their racist, anti-immigrant, and conspiracy-filled rhetoric flourished. Until it didn’t. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube banned them all for violating their rules in 2018, and fringe Republicans circled around them, uncovering their latest rallying cry: “Conservative bias!” As time went on, platforms like Facebook and Twitter were prompted to take more action — not just on the fringe, but the Republican politicians who adopted their rhetoric.
Saagar Enjeti, host of The Realignment Podcast, a show that discusses the changing tides in the conservative movement, told me that he sees the censorship discussion “as a gateway point” for Republicans to enter a broader debate regarding regulatory reform on the right, starting with Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon, some of the most powerful companies in the world.
“Libertarians are basically obsessed with not enacting any public policy,” Enjeti said. “The consequences are just too great in order to do anything, they say. They become de facto lobbyists for doing nothing. What Brendan and Josh Hawley and other people on the right are saying is ‘we believe in advancing public policy to advance conservative ends.’”
“For many Republicans, this debate is about our path forward. Do we hold Big Tech accountable or do we sit on our hands and do nothing?” Carr wrote in his Newsweek op-ed, phrasing he’s continued to drill home in subsequent appearances on television and podcasts and Twitter.
With less than a month until the US presidential election, all of the partisan outcry and moderation complaints coalesced around a New York Post story published on October 14th. The story is based on what the Post claimed to be emails and photos obtained from a laptop owned by Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son. The allegations made in the article were broadly disputed by outside reports, so Facebook and Twitter’s policy teams decided to take action against the report: Facebook reduced the article’s reach, and Twitter banned linking to the story entirely, before reversing that decision. The story and the moderation decision sparked yet another exhausting news cycle about bias against conservatives on social platforms.
To Carr, this cycle felt different.
Really a watershed week, Carr texted me.
That week, congressional Republicans took Facebook and Twitter to task. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued an opinion begging someone to sue over Section 230 so the court could review the law. Senate Republicans Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz threatened to subpoena Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey over their actions taken against the New York Post article. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told reporters that it was “time to scrap 230” after months of making little to no comment on the contentious law, often arguing that the federal government should avoid regulating tech companies. And FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement announcing that the commission would finally move forward with Trump’s social media order and reinterpret Section 230 on its own.
“Social media companies have a right to free speech,” Pai said. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”
Soon after Pai’s statement was released, Carr texted me a link to a Wall Street Journal op-ed in which the editorial board called for lawmakers to rethink 230. Welcome to the realignment, Wall Street Journal, he said.
On Wednesday, he texted me saying, Another good one to see, linking to his own tweet in which he called The Heritage Foundation “based” for coming out in favor of tech reform.
“The people talking about 230 weren’t exclusively the president, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz, but sometimes it felt like it was exclusively, the president, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz,” Carr said in our first interview. “Flash forward those four or five months since I’ve been talking about it, there’s certainly momentum now for 230 reform.”
Yes, the momentum may be there in brandished statements and tech CEO subpoena orders. But the Republican Party has yet to fully plot its path forward on 230 reform. McCarthy suggested they revoke the law. Other leaders want to tweak the language. Hawley has drafted many bills that would change the law in different ways.
It’s also not entirely clear to me that Carr has thought through it either. Right-wing anger at tech started with reactionaries like Jones and Loomer. Could Carr really see an intellectual policy-led movement built from conspiracies about shadowbanning?
Like any career bureaucrat, Carr’s response was measured and noncommittal. He said “fringe figures” being deplatformed didn’t meet the threshold for DC lawmakers to speak up. But “core political speech,” like that expressed by the president, was the tipping point — an idea that is murky and perhaps convenient for Carr, who is trying to place himself in the mainstream conservative movement.
Regardless of what happens next Tuesday, Carr will continue to do conservative media hits of all kinds. And of course, there’s social media, where Carr regularly posts about Section 230 reform, engaging with fans and haters with reaction GIFs. After all, what better way for Twitter’s future regulator to make his case than by tweeting about it?