Social Media Platforms and the Dangers of Censorship Creep
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Now at this point Facebook’s and Twitter’s influence on political life has been relatively modest. They haven’t, for instance, visibly tried to deploy their power in a way to block legislation that would specifically harm their business interests. Nor have they, to my knowledge, blocked major candidates’ speech during an actual campaign. (The deplatforming of President Trump happened two months after the election.)
At the same time, they have certainly been willing to restrict opinion that are well within the American political mainstream. Twitter, for instance, famously blocked a New York Post story based on the material from Hunter Biden’s laptop, on the theory that it involved sharing of “hacked materials,” though that hacked material policy has since been changed. Yet newspapers have long published stories based on likely illegally leaked material—consider the Pentagon Papers—and publishing a story about material taken from a laptop that had allegedly been abandoned at a repair shop isn’t substantially different.
Facebook blocked another New York Post story, posted in February 2020, about COVID possibly leaking from a Chinese virology lab. While it’s not clear whether that allegation is correct, it’s far from clear that it’s incorrect, either, as many have recently acknowledged.
Facebook blocked yet another Post story, about expensive real estate bought by a Black Lives Matter cofounder, on the grounds that the story allegedly revealing personal information. But the story didn’t give the addresses of the houses, though it included photos; the information was apparently drawn from public records. Stories about house purchases by prominent people are routine in mainstream media.
Newt Gingrich was apparently suspended from Twitter for “hateful conduct,” for a Tweet saying that “The greatest threat of a covid surge comes from Biden’s untested illegal immigrants pouring across the border. We have no way of knowing how many of them are bringing covid with them.” While such a threat may be overstated, it seems quite plausible: Many Latin American countries, including Mexico, have very high COVID rates, and of course international travel is indeed a potential vector of disease transmission.
YouTube deleted a video in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a panel of scientists were discussing COVID, because it “contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities regarding the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19″—the scientists apparently stated that children should not wear masks, and the CDC calls for children age 2 and above to wear masks. But as recently as August 2020 the World Health Organization took a different view for 2-to-5-year-olds (which it said shouldn’t wear masks) and perhaps 6-to-11-year-olds (for which it said the decision should turn on various contextual factors).
To be sure, even businesses’ suppression of “extremist” views, such as those of Louis Farrakhan or Milo Yiannopoulos, or of Naomi Wolf’s claims that the COVID vaccines are a “software platform that can receive uploads,” may undermine democracy. But the actual impact of the platforms on political life is especially great if they choose to block material that is seriously being debated.
Consider, too, that the app for the conservative-focused Twitter competitor Parler was removed by Apple and Google from their app stores, and blocked by its hosting company, Amazon Web Services, because of concerns that some of Parler’s users were encouraging violence. Parler was merely refusing to forbid certain speech, much of which is constitutionally protected—thus voluntarily acting in a way close to how the post office and phone companies are required by law to act. Yet this now seems to be a basis for deplatforming.
And it seems likely that platforms will over time become even more willing to block material they disapprove of. Why wouldn’t platforms that get a taste for exercising such power (in a way that I’m sure they think has done good) be inclined to exercise it even more? And if one day social media executives and other influential employees see some speech as not just ideologically offensive but highly economically threatening—for instance, urging regulations that they think would be devastating to their businesses—wouldn’t it be especially likely that they would try to tamp it down? Shouldn’t we indeed worry “that tomorrow’s apex platforms under deregulatory conditions might adopt content regulation policies that are far more at odds with basic liberal norms than anything today’s Californian cohort have adopted so far”?
Tech company managers are, after all, just people. Like people generally, they are capable of public-spiritedness, but also of narrow-mindedness and bias and self-interest. Indeed, being people, they are capable of viewing their narrow-mindedness and bias and self-interest as public-spiritedness.
But beyond this, there will likely be increasing public pressure to get Facebook, Twitter, and other companies to suppress other supposedly dangerous speech, such as fiery rhetoric against the police or oil companies or world trade authorities. People will demand: If you blocked A, why aren’t you blocking B? Aren’t you being hypocritical or discriminatory?
To offer just one example, consider this headline: “Facebook banned Holocaust denial from its platform in October. Anti-hate groups now want the social media giant to block posts denying the Armenian genocide.” If that call is accepted, it seems likely that other groups will make similar calls, whether about the treatment of American Indians by the U.S. or other North or South American countries, treatment of the Uyghurs or Tibetans by China, or a wide range of other historical events. And since the Facebook policy bans “[d]enying or distorting information about the Holocaust,” the scope of such potential restrictions could be quite broad and quite vague.
I’ve called this phenomenon “censorship envy.” People may sometimes be willing to tolerate speech that they view as offensive and evil, if they perceive that it’s protected by a broadly accepted free speech norm. But once some viewpoints get suppressed, foes of other viewpoints are likely to wonder: Why not the viewpoints that we condemn as well?
No-one wants to feel like a chump who isn’t getting the moral victories that others are getting, and who has to suffer in silence while others get what they want. Plus trying to suppress speech that one sees as evil may seem like a virtuous cause to many people. Once that avenue for feeling good becomes available to some, others will likely want to use it, too.
And there is little reason to think that the platforms will enforce the rules in any generally politically neutral way,
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