To protect free speech, social media platforms must stop their excess
by DAVID KEATING
Attacks on the culture of freedom of expression are increasing day by day. Unfortunately, much of the aggression comes from major social media platforms.
The power of our democracy and the genius of our First Amendment is our recognition that no authority can dictate what is true. We resolve our disagreements through speaking, publishing and organizing into groups.
For centuries, reaching others with our views has been hard work, and in many ways it still is. But thanks to social media, most Americans can post anything and theoretically reach millions of fellow Americans and even much of the world.
As noted by the U.S. Supreme Court, social media platforms “for many are the primary sources for…speak and listen in the modern public square,” where Americans share vital information and voice their opinions. .
The power of our democracy and the genius of our First Amendment is our recognition that no authority can dictate what is true.
Social media has enabled more Americans to speak out in public than ever before, but like past revolutions in communications technology, it has also sparked a backlash. Politicians, media or activists are increasingly pressuring companies to censor speech that they deem false or misleading, or simply opposing. Much of this discourse lately has been about issues related to elections and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Granted, you can easily find false claims on both topics online (and offline). Yet the platforms’ judgments are far from infallible, and their heavy hand threatens to stifle important debates on unresolved issues. In fact, it has already happened.
Early in the pandemic, Facebook and YouTube censored claims that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated from a lab leak in China, a theory that remains plausible to this day. And, of course, Twitter and Facebook have restricted the New York Post reporting emails on Hunter Biden’s laptop in the run-up to the 2020 election, claiming they were the product of foreign disinformation. After the election, the emails were found to be genuine.
Many Democrats have encouraged this censorship trend. Recall that White House press secretary Jen Psaki called for “faster action against harmful posts” and the suspension of accounts on all platforms. The Biden administration created the so-called “Disinformation Governance Council” before disbanding it in response to public outrage.
Many Republicans say they oppose censorship but want to repeal Section 230, which immunizes social media companies from liability for user posts. This would likely lead to even more censorship from platforms eager to avoid costly litigation. It would also make it impossible for new social media companies to bring down incumbents.
What to do?
Note that there are no easy answers. But many of the steps being taken now pose real threats to free speech while doing little to stop disinformation and may enable more.
Some of the richest companies in the world run social media sites and their mission is to maximize profits. Getting on the wrong side of government officials is bad for business. This creates terrible incentives for platforms to censor based on the opinions of the ruling party.
Politicians who try to influence the platforms’ speech policies are a threat to free speech. Platforms should focus on empowering their users, not their critics or the government, to control the content they see.
The government has a role to play in protecting freedom of expression on the Internet. We can create laws and ethics rules that prevent government officials from using threats against platforms to get them to censor. And we should consider creating a legal defense against government coercive actions against social media platforms if the government takes action based on its interest in retaliating against a platform’s refusal to censor or silence itself. or silence its users.
Throughout history, free speech and open debate have been society’s best tools for uncovering the truth and managing our disagreements.
We also need more information on how platforms use algorithms to promote and remove content. Right now, all we get are random dumps of information from whistleblowers. If no one knows how social media black box algorithms work and fail, how can we come up with sensible government policies?
Ultimately, the solution must come from the platforms themselves. They should revert to the more speech-friendly mindset adopted before 2016. Taking on the role of a private sector “ministry of truth” has been a reputational disaster with no clear benefit to the public. And it’s especially dangerous given the threats made by government officials against the platforms.
Throughout history, free speech and open debate have been society’s best tools for uncovering the truth and managing our disagreements. The technology we use to express ourselves has changed many times, from the printing press to the telegraph to radio and television and now, to social media. The underlying principles of the First Amendment will always stand the test of time.
David Keating is the president of the Institute for Free Speech in Washington, DC.