The task the companies appear to be carving out for themselves is beyond Sisyphean. Twitter hosts a half-billion new tweets each day. YouTube has logged 2.2 quadrillion video views so far this year. Every 20 minutes, Facebook users share 1 million links. There aren’t enough moderators or an algorithm smart enough to keep tabs on all of these accounts, so the best the social media operations can hope to accomplish is to pretend they’re resisting the incoming tide, not stopping it. For instance, Facebook admitted that while it will police statements about the Holocaust, the new policy won’t apply to the Armenian and Rwandan genocides. Likewise, Twitter affirmed that while it will suppress direct links to the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story, it will make no effort to stifle conversations or arguments that don’t link to personal and private information—or “hacked” material—contained in the story. That QAnon ban at YouTube isn’t really a ban, either. It only applies to videos that might justify or encourage violence.

If the social media companies are engaged in a Potemkin Village exercise, for whose benefit is the elaborate staging? Without question, the social media companies have every right to set rules for their sites, just as newspapers, TV networks and bookstores have every right to determine what they find fit to purvey. (When was the last time you found a work of Holocaust revisionism in your local Barnes & Noble?) But as much as these companies worry about what users think, what really drives them is how their true customers—advertisers—react. Any time a big advertiser complains, the social media companies take notice, just as newspapers did back in the olden times when newspapers were the go-to venue for ads. Anger one social media user and you might lose him. Anger an advertiser—or make him feel uncomfortable because his content is adjacent to outrageous material—and you risk your bottom line.