Social Media Censorship: Platform or Publisher?

Mike Ottavio | @MadMikePolitics

Times change but our rights do not.  This sentiment, repeated mostly by conservatives and libertarians, aims to show that no matter what changes in our society, our rights should always stay the same.  This is a good mindset for any freedom loving individual. But what happens when society changes so much that the way we enforce these rights change? No, we aren’t talking about guns. We are talking about the mother of all rights, freedom of speech. More specifically, we are talking about how it is threatened on social media.

Everything from how we communicate with one another to how we digest information and where our news comes from is subject to drastic change with the evolution of technology, especially with the internet. The internet is ever evolving and ever expanding.  Anyone who remembers windows 2000 knows that the internet has not only changed in appearance, speed, and functionality: it has changed the way we live our lives entirely.

With the evolution of the internet, we have seen the rise of many businesses based almost entirely online. Among these are the largest and most widely used are social media sites.  Social media sites have changed everything about how our society works.  More specifically, it has changed the way we communicate with and take in the world around us.

The Social Media Crackdown

Social media sites, most recently Facebook, have banned what the media deems “far right leaders.”  Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos and Paul Joseph Watson were among the few to be purged from Facebook. This is all part of the sites most recent crackdown on what they call “hate speech.”

What we have witnessed across most social media platforms, from Facebook to Twitter and even Tumblr, is a rise in the policing of not only words but ideologies.  A good example of thought policing is Twitter’s conduct policy.  Twitter states in their policy that you can be subject to disciplinary action for misgendering a trans person.  Misgendering includes calling a person by the wrong pronouns and addressing a trans person by their former gender.

The Social Media Debate

Now in no way shape or form is this meant to advocate for misgendering trans people. If a man wants to become a woman or vice versa they should be free to. As decent human beings, we should agree to call them by what they asked to be called by.  However, there are people with strong opinions on this matter.

If a man identifies as a woman and someone is saying that a man will never be a woman, depending on the context of the conversation the latter party will be banned from Twitter.  Think this is just speculation?  It’s not. Canadian writer and prominent feminist Meghan Murphy was banned from Twitter for refusing to refer to a trans person by their preferred pronouns.

The Meghan Murphy Controversy

In an argument about trans women competing in women’s sports, Meghan tweeted “men aren’t women though.” This particular tweet earned Meghan her second suspension on the site. Meghan was biologically correct.  Someone born with an XY chromosome will never be a person born with an XX chromosome.  So, if one statement is biologically correct then the debate is ideological.  The problem here is that Twitter is taking an ideological stance on this debate. They’re even going as far as to delete those who disagree.

While Meghan’s case is very specific, it’s one of many similar cases. Social media platforms target people who have opinions that don’t fall in line. The people who seem to be on the reviving end of most of these bans are predominantly conservatives.  This culminates in Facebook removing Jones, Milo, and Watson. Other conservative figures such as actor James Woods, pharma bro Martin Shkreli, GOP operative Roger Stone, and InfoWars CEO Alex Jones have been permanently banned from Twitter.

These bans over ideological differences beg the question: is this a violation of free speech?  A private business is free to discriminate between consumers.  As we have seen in Colorado when a baker refuses his services to a gay couple on the grounds it violated his religion, it’s reasonable. A business can refuse service to people within reason, but what kind of businesses are these sites.

Publisher or Platform

Facebook is having a difficult time deciding what they are. They refer to themselves as both a platform and a publisher.  So are Facebook users employees or customers?  If Facebook is a publisher, then the people on the site are contributors. But this goes against Facebook’s stance of not being accountable for what’s on their site.  Section 230 of the communications decency act immunizes social media companies from unlawful material posted on their site. But this section operates under the assumption these sites are neutral public forums and not private publishers.  If Facebook is a private publisher like Alex Jones’s Infowars, then we can hold them accountable as a business for what users post on their site.

With legislation on their side, will these social media giants ever choose which role they play?  If Facebook and Twitter play editor, they’re responsible for the content. They will pay the cost in the long run.

The Beginning

Before the internet, bookstores and libraries weren’t legally responsible for offensive content.  At the inception of the internet, this is the law of the digital world.  However, in 1995, Prodigy, an early online service, is found to be liable for content posted on its message boards. The courts reason that “utilizing technology and the manpower to delete” objectionable content makes Prodigy more like a publisher than a bookstore or library.

Congress responds to this finding by enacting Section 230. This establishes that platforms cannot be accountable as publishers of user-generated content. They will also not be accountable for removing lewd or violent content.  Nevertheless, this provision does not allow platforms to remove whatever they wish.  The courts also ruled that what is deemed to be objectional material is not whatever the social media sites want. It must be violent, threatening, or harassing in nature.  Unfortunately for these social media sites, political views do not fall under any of those categories and censoring them is a violation of free speech.

Social Media in the Future

Given that sites such as Facebook and Twitter are currently immune to any legal repercussions that come from user-generated content, should they be allowed to censor conservatives?  Businesses should be allowed to operate as they wish. But when these companies already have legislation protecting them as a platform, but choose to act as a publisher, it’s time for things to change.

Whatever happens going forward, one thing is for certain: we all have a part in ensuring everyone around us has a voice.  We may not like what our neighbors have to say, but we should defend their right to say it.


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