The “Power” of Social Media Over Free Speech

    We are in the heat of a dangerous debate about political speech on social media.  Both sides of the political spectrum are joining together to bemoan the “power” that social media companies have over speech.  To overgeneralize, the political left is concerned that social media has become a place to spread disinformation and the political right is concerned that the social media companies have too much control over their ability to get their message out.

In other words, one side says do not allow them to spread “lies”.  The social media companies react to that request by labeling content as “misinformation” or “under dispute”.  The other side says that they aren’t labeling lies but instead labeling the “truth” and biasing users against their message.  When the “misinformation” is consistent and judged as “dangerous” due to the possibility that it results in violence, it is taken to the next extreme which is to remove the person from the platform entirely.

The issue always comes down to who gets to decide what is/are a lie, the truth, misinformation, offenders, dangerous, disinformation, conspiracy theories etc. 

It is important to state that the right to freedom of speech pre-dated the 1st amendment.  It is an inalienable right that we get as citizens of a free society, liberal democracy or constitutional republic.  The 1st amendment didn’t give it to us.  It ensured that it could not be taken away.  It says in part, “Congress shall make no law…” “…abridging the freedom of speech.”  So, the first amendment protects us from Congress’s overreach and not the actions of private businesses.  Hold that thought, because the biggest danger here is that we, as citizens, call legislators to the very overreach that the drafters of the 1st amendment wanted to protect us from.

So, how do we deal with this current situation, where the arguments of both sides have merit?  The open spread of lies, conspiracy theories, and misinformation creates suffering and can lead to violence.  Muting the voices of someone because something is a “lie”, in your opinion, is a problem, because humans are imperfect in their judgement of these things and political motivations further pervert our judgement.

In my opinion, the best way to deal with a company that does something that you do not like is to stop using their products and services.  I lived the vast majority of my adult life without a Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, or Youtube account.  It did not curtail my right to free speech nor prevent me from getting my message out to the stakeholders that I wanted to reach.  The same is absolutely true of politicians, journalists etc.

We could simply find an alternative product or service.  If you don’t see an alternative that looks as good to you, just wait a minute, the marketplace is likely to give you one in short order.  Better yet, create your own.

Recently, it has been popular to say that they have no competition.  That is a sizable overstatement.  Here are Twitter’s.  Here are Facebook’s.  Here are Google’s, which is the easiest of them by far.  If these companies act poorly in the marketplace, the marketplace will provide more, and more worthy, competitors.

However, the linked competitors above are the least of their actual competitors as it relates to free speech and getting your message out.  These people who are “silenced” can get on TV news, hold a press conference, go on radio, post on a web page, podcast, write for a newspaper, send a press release, give an interview, blog, put a video on vimeo, write a book and on and on and on.  President Donald Trump, as an example, has the phone number and email address of millions of people that donated to his campaign.  He could have a message to them within an hour.  Given that the world is fascinated by US politicians, there is not a shortage of ways to communicate.

If they find themselves deplatformed, I would urge them to get creative.  It is not that hard.  When President Trump, just four short years ago, started speaking to his supporters via Twitter, it was considered an innovation.  What a short period of time for us to forget, it is not a necessity.

To be clear, deplatforming is a complex issue that all Americans should be watching with great skepticism and worry.  If you are concerned, I share your concern, but it’s complexity will resist simple solutions.

That being said, please be careful of leaning into silliness.  A couple of recent examples:  

I saw Representative Devin Nunez say that  “republicans have no way to communicate” on Fox News, because Parler was taken offline by Amazon and removed from the Android and ITunes app stores.  Let’s look at this objectively.  He is on a TV show getting his message to millions of Americans while simultaneously saying that he, a republican, “has no way to communicate”.  The video of that appearance is posted to YouTube where it has been viewed more than 250,000 times as I write this.  As I write this, he has active Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram accounts (I checked).

I also saw Representative Marjorie Taylor Green wearing a “silenced” mask while speaking on one of the greatest platforms in the world, the floor of the House of Representatives of the United States of America.  Her speech was simultaneously broadcast on several major television networks. Plus, at that moment, she still had active Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook accounts (I checked).

They are mad. I would be too.  They, and political allies of theirs, have lost some of their preferred ways of getting their message out.  I get it.  However, let’s not overreact, and allow politicians to make things worse, which they will almost certainly do if we do not keep our heads.

I think the best way to deal with speech that you dislike is to debate it, refute it or ignore it.  However, I understand the damage that can be done by the spread of lies, so I can understand the compulsion to do more.

This path will be fraught.  Labelling content, locking out accounts, removing from platforms etc…  are scary ideas in the best of scenarios.  These companies will not do it perfectly, or even satisfactorily, at first. 

Recently, an otherwise ignored section of the Communications Decency Act (Section 230) has gotten a lot of attention.  The section that politicians are threatening to repeal states: 

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  The idea that the politicians are leaning into is that if this protection is repealed they can be held accountable for lies on their platform and/or improper labeling or deplatforming.  Regulating private sector businesses is a legislator’s dream.  However, it is unlikely to be a boon for American free speech online.

Instead, the effect would almost certainly be that every comment on a YouTube video would have to be scrutinized to avoid legal liability.  Without giving a host immunity from legal liability, they will be forced to put onerous restrictions that will almost certainly reduce speech online and simultaneously slow it down.  In an atmosphere like that, there will be less content, under tighter controls and the liability for something as innocuous as a personal blog would make it legally risky for your average American. 

Instead, I would suggest calling for social media companies to self regulate.  Work for terms of use that are objective, balanced, fair, transparent, and crystal clear. When they don’t, abandon them for a competitor that is giving its users better.  That is the only rational way that I can see forward.

Just my opinion.  What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

If you find value in this article, please share it with others that may also find value.  Like, comment and follow Sapiens Society below, on Facebook and on Twitter.

#SocialMedia #Section230 #Deplatforming #FreedomOfSpeech #FreeSpeech #Censorship 

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