Facebook and Instagram took the extraordinary step last week of banning several “far right” commentators and one left-wing anti-Semite (yeah, that was news to The Washington Post) from their platforms entirely. It was the latest in a series of moves over the past several months and years designed to curb what the platforms’ liberal management and ownership see as “dangerous,” albeit not illegal, speech.
Before Jones, Paul Joseph Watson, and Milo, it was key “alt-right” figures like Jared Taylor, David Duke and Richard Spencer being purged from various platforms. Next, will it be religious groups that oppose gay marriage, anti-illegal immigration organizations or even those who don’t believe the entire Third World should be brought to the United States en masse? Maybe those affected are a few ideological steps away, but we should all be asking the question: How many steps until it’s us?
Sure, Alex Jones and Infowars, much less Louis Farrakhan, have said and published a lot of things that are easy to disagree with. But in Jones’ case, at least, nobody of any credibility has accused him of being a racist, and while some content on the Infowars website certainly consists of outlandish speculation at best, such a description might have on occasion fit Trump’s “fake news” targets The Washington Post and New York Times.
In other words, it’s a slippery slope, one that leads us down an increasingly undesirable path where the only speech that is “acceptable” is that which does not offend a single person - or basically no speech at all. Yes, it was done by a private corporation and not a governmental entity, and as such was legal, but such moves do have ominous portents about the future ability of conservatives to tell the truth and spread our message.
Politico senior writer Jack Shafer pointed out Friday that, while what goes on on the platform is “Facebook’s house,” there are free speech health implications to both governmental and corporate attempts to shut it down.
“Free speech’s health has traditionally been measured in America not by what we will allow speakers to say, although that is important, but what listeners will tolerate,” he wrote. “If enough of us stomach the dissemination of wicked conspiracy theories, race hatred, radicalism, blasphemy, poisonous lies, militancy, fearmongering and ugliness, that’s a good sign that free speech has found a safe harbor. But if the government censors the bounders and miscreants who spew these ideas—or if corporations, churches and other organizations work to strangle their expressions—then free speech is in trouble.”
Reason’s Nick Gillespie argues that such moves “feeds into the tendency to try suppress beliefs that one considers contemptible, dangerous, or evil. Those are not sharply delimited categories, and the tendency will be for more and more material to be seen as worthy of being policed, regulated, and eliminated. That is what's happening on many college campuses, and the results are not encouraging for a society that believes in freedom of expression.”
Whereas liberals have historically been the ones defending free speech at all costs, this time conservatives are up in arms because it is conservative voices and opinions that are being suppressed, not by government, but by private corporations whose power, particularly over the public consciousness, rivals that of any nation. Except, when it comes to solutions, conservatives often run into conflict with their own stated values. “Government cannot regulate speech,” said the good libertarian, “but a private corporation can do whatever it wants.”
Okay, but what happens when that private corporation is a virtual (no pun intended) monopoly? I suppose there’s no need to ask, because it’s happening now. “Don’t like it? Go start your own social media platform!” a conservative or libertarian might say smugly, as if it were just a matter of learning a little code and a making a quick visit to GoDaddy. Yeah, good luck with that.
Sure, some have tried to make platforms to rival Facebook and Twitter (there’s the horribly hard to navigate Gab, and have you ever heard of any of these Facebook “alternatives?”), but any would-be competitors are sunk before they even begin by the very definition of a successful social network - everyone wants to be where everyone else is. Once Facebook and Twitter - two different types of platforms - gained peak popularity as the platform of choice for that style, it became nearly impossible to dethrone them absent a shift of monumental proportions. Even when companies create features people enjoy, Facebook’s billions can simply purchase or copy them. Even if someone were willing to risk a few billion of their own dollars in a foolhardy attempt to create the “next Facebook,” the user network is the key and they’d be starting at zero. Facebook’s unparalleled user numbers combined with unrivaled riches amounts to a monopoly that would put U.S. Steel to shame.
So we’re left with a digital public square of sorts that has replaced the old one, brought about by the rise of the internet and its limitless possibilities and controlled by a few powerful corporations who happen to be do-gooder liberal types who think that socialism is cool and free speech drools.
But, what to do? Let’s hope President Trump will put his money where his mouth is on the issue and get SOMETHING done, but not every suggestion is a good one. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s approach would potentially remove the immunity social media platforms that engage in speech censorship currently enjoy from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which otherwise holds platforms legally liable for content posted by users. By Cruz’s logic, if Facebook sees itself as the arbiter of speech on the internet, they are no longer a “neutral public forum” and should not enjoy those benefits. Except, would removing this protection merely hoist conservatives by their own petard by ‘forcing’ Facebook to simply ban any speech it deems remotely questionable?
In his article on the subject, Gillespie recommends that social media networks install a series of robust filters that allow people to block certain types of content, even if such content is posted by friends and family members. It would work, and it’s a great idea, but methinks these social media giants aren’t interested in a solution that allows free speech. Could they have more nefarious motives? After all, they want to ban speech, not debate or debunk it. Why? “What are they afraid of?” an inquiring mind might ask.
At any rate, the only viable solution - and the sooner every conservative and free-thinking liberal gets there, the better - is for these social media giants to be regulated just like any other public utility. While illegal speech such as harassment and incitements to violence would still be illegal and prosecutable, everything else would be allowed.
Just as everyone, regardless of their political opinion, has the right to purchase electricity or running water, EVERYONE should have the right to speak freely on what has, for all intents and purposes, become the public square. Anything less is Un-American.