The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Josh Hawley’s book on Big Tech, his persona risks undermining his arguments

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks during a Senate committee hearing last month. In his new book, he offers suggestions for reining in Big Tech.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks during a Senate committee hearing last month. In his new book, he offers suggestions for reining in Big Tech. (Al Drago/Pool/AP)
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In case you somehow hadn’t heard that Sen. Josh Hawley’s new book was canceled by its first publisher, he’s eager to remind you. It’s right there in the first line, like a point of pride. It’s proof, he says, that corporate America wants to silence any voices that question its power over society.

Simon & Schuster abandoned Hawley’s book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech,” after the Missouri Republican challenged the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, the same day pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol. The publisher cited “his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.” The book was picked up by the conservative publisher Regnery.

For Hawley the cancellation fit neatly into one of the main themes of the book: that “what the woke capitalists want, along with their allies in government, is to preserve their power over American politics and society.”

But the big problem for Hawley’s book isn’t its lack of a major publishing house. The book now competes in the public’s mind with an indelible image of the young senator as an ally to the insurrection, offering an encouraging fist-pump in solidarity with the mob outside the Capitol on that deadly day.

Which means that to get his ideas across as a serious thinker and player on one of the wickedest of wicked problems facing Washington today — what to do about Big Tech — he will need to make those ideas stand out on their own, distinct from a persona that conveys a blind fealty to Trumpism and the insult-laden, grievance-driven divisiveness that the former president rode to the end of his term and beyond.

The book does not offer a promising path in that regard. Even as Hawley attempts to build an intellectual scaffolding around his challenge to Big Tech — he posits that giant companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are the descendants of the robber barons of the Gilded Age — he finds a way to blame liberal thought for today’s dilemma. These companies, he argues, are products of a “corporate liberalism” that derives from an unholy collaboration between Big Business and the state. The tech companies, he says, are “draining prosperity and power away from the great middle of our society and creating, as they do, a new oligarchy.” (Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Here Hawley is drawing a straight line from the era he knows best — he’s written a book on Theodore Roosevelt — and laying the foundation for his corporate-liberalism theory, which he says was set in motion during that time. Roosevelt, he argues, “never managed fully to banish the monopolists.” And Hawley contends that Woodrow Wilson, acting under cover of his supposedly progressive governing philosophy, cemented the state’s acceptance of monopolies as “the nation’s first prominent corporate liberal.” Progressive-era historians are likely to have qualms about this interpretation of Wilson.

Hawley writes that his work on Big Tech as Missouri attorney general and then as a senator kept leading him back to Roosevelt. But in focusing on that period, he skips over decades of business and regulatory history since then. Whole books have been written, for example, about the government-induced breakup of AT&T in the 1980s. It took years and a wild ride through federal court before it was finally settled, but Hawley mentions it only in passing. Surely that case holds lessons for today’s trustbusters.

Moreover, by leaping over decades of government antitrust work, Hawley is also inviting comparisons with another new book by a senator — Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — which lays out the evolution of antitrust policy from the early monopolies to the present, including the laissez-faire Reagan years.

None of this is to say that Hawley’s critique of Big Tech is unfounded. Much of what his book offers is in line with an emerging consensus in both parties that government needs to rein in the industry’s control over large swaths of the economy, including news, advertising and online commerce. Its algorithms are problematic, and there are concerns about its handling of consumer data. His proposals are ambitious and far-reaching. He wants to apply aggressive antitrust enforcement to the companies, saying Google and Facebook in particular are ripe targets for breakup. And he wants to end the Section 230 liability protection for tech companies that engage in “manipulative, behavioral advertising,” among other things.

These are serious proposals, but Hawley often undermines his case with less-than-compelling evidence and disregard for any position that runs counter to his own.

A good example is his attempt to prove, with information from a Facebook whistleblower, that platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter had colluded on the kinds of posts to disallow on their sites. The evidence, Hawley says, was in an internal Facebook workflow tool called Tasks that showed that the company was getting input from Google and Twitter about what to “censor.”

Hawley confronted Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg about the issue at a Senate hearing last November, and Zuckerberg patiently explained that the platforms do not coordinate on what to take down, except in instances involving important matters of security, like a terrorist attack or child exploitation.

Hawley pressed on in the language of a prosecutor, reminding Zuckerberg that he was under oath. But in the end, the evidence Hawley presented was ambiguous — assertions from an anonymous whistleblower that the companies were coordinating and a hazy screenshot of the Tasks tool that didn’t exactly show a smoking gun.

Hawley nonetheless devotes several pages to the claim, presumably because it so conveniently supports his premise that the companies are trying to suppress conservative voices. “Big Tech was more than a group of monopolies; it was a movement, just as the corporatists of the Gilded Age had represented a movement to change American life,” he writes.

The claim that the platforms are censoring conservative voices, though, is an unfounded one, researchers from New York University concluded in a study released in February.

And decisions by the companies about what user posts to allow and what to take down are complex. In content moderation, some calls, like disallowing posts involving violence or pornography, are easy. Others, like where to draw the line on misinformation, are harder. Another piece of this puzzle is whether the government should be dictating when and how private companies enforce their terms of service. Does it even want to?

Hawley does not acknowledge that complexity. That would require a recognition that these issues are hard, and that they call for open debate and respect for, if not agreement with, opposing views.

It’s the kind of openness that Hawley will need to demonstrate in the closely divided Senate if he wants to turn any of his proposals into law. His book does not suggest he’s ready.

The Tyranny of Big Tech

By Josh Hawley

Regnery. 194 pp. $29.99