In today’s public policy arena, winning ideas rarely are decided by sound logic, accurate facts, or even by the most votes. Instead, content filters and algorithms, meticulously engineered by social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, intentionally steer public debate in the direction of their owners’ personal politics; and, not coincidentally, toward the politics of their liberal friends in Washington and Sacramento.
For starters, consider Facebook – the Big Daddy of social media. There have been numerous reports of Facebook’s algorithm taking down popular pages of pro-gun organizations. But even this example of the “new censorship” pales when viewed in the context of the company’s “aggregators of trending topics” – faceless individuals who decide what news content to list in a high visibility section of the site, and who intentionally suppress conservative news and sites.
Facebook’s co-conspirator Twitter is no better; having permanently banned popular Breitbart technology editor Milo Yiannopoulos, under dubious circumstances. Twitter then was accused in July of removing the #DNCLeaks hashtag from its trending topics; effectively stifling discussion of the evidence of corruption uncovered in the Democratic National Committee’s hacked emails.
Such sneaky practices are growing as social media sites assume a more aggressive approach to posts and content they determine to be “problematic” -- a liberal catchall term used to describe any free expression contrary to their personal perspective. This helps to explain why these social media platforms almost exclusively censor conservative news, topics, and users.
Rather than foster open debate, free expression, and deeper intellectual inquiry – actions at one time considered among the goals of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- these companies have instead taken to creating “safe spaces” for users by banning objectionable content and offensive users. Thus, rather than a place where individuals of varied political backgrounds can openly and intelligently discuss issues important to the future of our nation and our society, social media users consciously or unwittingly become participants in a dumbed-down and tightly constrained public policy arena. This is the price paid for being able to instantly and regularly communicate with fellow users about what they had for dinner or the latest concert they attended.
On college campuses, the consequences are even more profound and negative; as fringe Marxist movements push school administrations to take punitive actions against students who use social media for “hate speech” – that is, intellectually challenging ideas. Others, like the See The Stripes group at Clemson University, have gone so far as to call for “criminalizing” offensive speech by students and faculty – a ludicrous and legally ignorant position, but one illustrative of the growing anti-free speech environment driving censorship both online and offline.
As private entities, the censorship policies of social media companies do not equate to violations of the First Amendment per se; but this does not mean such policies do not contribute to the overall chilling of free speech. Regardless of its legality, the practice of censorship in both public and private environments reinforces the notion that disagreeable or offensive speech is best addressed by eliminating it altogether, rather than through debate, rebuttable, or simply more speech. And, with each occurrence, the notion grows that articulating any idea not part of the liberal agenda is objectionable and subject to removal.
Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance that free speech and expression plays in securing individual liberty. Benjamin Franklin called freedom of speech “a principal pillar of a free government,” and noted that “without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom.”
It is curious indeed to consider how America’s Founding Fathers would have been treated were they to argue in support of American independence in today’s society and using contemporary means of communication. Would Thomas Jefferson have been “no platformed” as he toured American universities with his metaphors about refreshing the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants? Would Patrick Henry be permanently banned from Twitter for extremist comments like, “Give me liberty, or give me death”? Would George Washington’s posts about organizing militias be stripped from Facebook because they contained imagery of guns?
The late 18th-Century world in which our Founders articulated, debated, and implemented the flourishing, freedom-based country that defeated the greatest military power in the world at the time, was anything but a “safe space;” but if the liberal puppeteers fashioning 21st-Century social media had been running things back then, history would have turned out quite different. And not for the better.