Since the advent of social media, and specifically its rise as the primary means of mass communication, the power of the companies that own the platforms has increased exponentially. Since these companies often set their own rules that they then enforce, anyone can be removed for any reason at any time. One’s presence on social media is a temporary privilege that can be terminated at any time.
In this piece, I want to make the case for social media companies to be regulated in similar ways to telephones. It is true to say that one cannot have one’s access to the telephone cut off if one says something offensive. Whatever one says, access to the medium is not restricted. If the medium is used for illegal activities, the state takes action rather than the private company. When it comes to social media, the state has effectively surrendered its power to enforce the laws.
Corporations with Too Much Power, Part One: Facebook and Twitter
Examples abound of companies such as Facebook and Twitter effectively censoring customers because of something they said. Donald Trump is perhaps the most famous, but look at why Facebook and Twitter banned him. He did not break any laws (enough for charges to be filed anyway), but rather he violated a private company’s terms of service. A private company was able to censor the President of the United States? I hope I am not alone in suggesting that this is way too much power for a private corporation to have.
Please do not take the proceeding paragraph as some sort of defence of the former President. Such is not my purpose. I merely use Mr. Trump, a divisive figure to be sure, to illustrate the point about private corporations having power over speech. One of the arguments you hear is that censorship on social media is not, in American parlance, a First Amendment issue. The chief reason is that the First Amendment restricts the government’s ability to censor speech. It says nothing about corporations’ ability to do so. At the risk of engaging in a slippery slope fallacy, this argument should terrify you.
Corporations with Too Much Power, Part Two: YouTube
YouTube content creators that are considered ‘borderline’, a term best understood as critical of the establishment, are deprioritised. Examples include Secular Talk, Jimmy Dore, David Pakman, and others. These creators are simply not recommended to new potential subscribers. Indeed, when one watches these videos, in the ‘up next’ section of the page, one sees corporate news channels recommended. Such channels also appear on the front page of YouTube as well. Now you might argue that these channels also cover news, but that is little more than an artful dodge. The reason one goes to YouTube is to avoid the propaganda of mainstream media. YouTube as much as admitted that the so-called ‘borderline content’ was being removed from circulation in favour of ‘authoritative sources’, best understood as establishment media sources.
A question for YouTube: would these ‘authoritative sources’ be the same ones who lied the nation into war in Iraq? Would these be the same ‘authoritative sources’ who did Russiagate for five years? These sources are not ‘authoritative’, but rather tow the establishment line, which is seen as more ‘advertiser friendly’, which means YouTube makes more money. It is the money, Lebowski. One could be forgiven for thinking that the point of this deplatforming of channels that tell inconvenient truths was to turn YouTube, formerly under the tagline ‘broadcast yourself’, into Corporatetube.
A Counter-Argument: They are Private Companies
As I hinted at above, censorship on social media platforms is not a free speech issue. Laws protecting free speech say nothing about corporations’ power to limit free speech. Given that these platforms are private companies, one could argue they are within their rights to terminate anyone’s account at any time. Perhaps this is valid, but surely only to a point. Telephones are the ultimate example of the counter-point though. You can call Barack Obama a n*gger over the telephone if you want to and nothing will happen. You can tell sexist jokes and say all manner of ‘offensive’ things over the telephone and nothing will happen to you.
But if you do the same things (or in many cases much more benign stuff) you can find yourself perma-banned from these platforms without right of appeal. What is different? Why are the standards different on social media than on the telephone? As usual, please do not take the criticism of the differing standards as endorsements of the less savoury characters in society, but I want to know. Why is ‘being offensive’ (whatever that means) enough to get what is, in effect, the internet death penalty? The response to objectionable speech is not censorship, but more speech.
Proposed Solution: The First Amendment on Social Media
The solution to this frankly monstrous power in the hands of corporations is to extend First Amendment protections to social media. Short of libel, slander, direct threats of violence and sedition, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. That means that ‘offensive speech’, itself an utterly subjective term, is no longer grounds for censorship. Indeed, there is an American case where the Supreme Court ruled that the content of speech is not grounds for censorship. As I said in the opening paragraph, if the platform is used for illegal activities then the state should act. But I for one see a serious problem with the idea that corporations, not accountable to any laws, have pretty much unfettered control over people’s access to the primary means of communication.
If the decisions to ban or warn people are made by machines (which they must be given the sheer volume of posts), this too poses an issue. Machines, for all their intelligence, cannot ascertain tone, including sarcasm, or context. A youtuber I follow was recently perma-banned from Twitter because he quoted a line from Game of Thrones which says ‘all men must die’. He clearly meant it sarcastically, but a machine cannot tell the difference. It simply saw the words ‘men must die’, interpreted that as a threat of violence and banned him. He had broken no laws, but a private company’s terms of service.
Conclusion: A Cautionary Tale
Social media as a platform run by private enterprise should serve as a cautionary tale. When something becomes essential (itself debatable in this case I admit), it becomes a utility and should be regulated as such. Consider electricity and water. The idea that access to these things can be taken away because of an opinion is laughable. Now is that a perfect analogy? No. One can survive without social media. But communication, for which social media is the primary means, is essential. Free speech protections (with the usual caveats) should be applied to social media. The practicalities of this (since these platforms are used around the world) would be difficult to work out. But the current system of corporations as gatekeepers for what is and is not acceptable speech is not sustainable.
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