American social media platforms have long sought to present themselves as venues for unfettered free expression. A decade ago, Twitter employees used to brand the startup as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” In late 2019, Mark Zuckerberg gave an address defending Facebook’s allegiance to First Amendment principles—including his oft-stated belief that platforms should not be “the arbiters of truth.”
The pandemic made a mockery of that idea. In the context of a global public health emergency, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google began removing posts containing misleading information about the coronavirus, which required them to make judgments about truth and falsity. The presidential election pulled them even deeper into the job of fact-checking. By spring 2020, Twitter was applying warning labels to Donald Trump’s account, and by the summer, all the platforms were touting their proactive efforts against election misinformation.