In the days following the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, several major social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, made the controversial decisions to indefinitely suspend the accounts of former President Donald Trump. Even before this, there had been increasing concern among many Americans, particularly conservatives, over the suppression of certain ideas by Big Tech. In response to widespread reports of misinformation and “fake news,” many of these same major social media platforms have faced calls to take down “false information.”
However, regardless of the undeniable nobility of attempting to prevent the spread of misinformation, these measures of censorship set a disastrous precedent for the future of free speech, and thus democracy, in the United States.
Over the past year, many social media platforms have taken action against purportedly false or misleading information by removing posts, suspending accounts, creating notices, and otherwise discouraging particular types of speech.
For example, as the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse garnered national attention, many Americans went to social media to voice their support for him. Under the law, Rittenhouse, like any criminal defendant, was deemed innocent until proven guilty, even before his acquittal, but Facebook designated any support of Rittenhouse as praise for a mass murderer and took many of those posts down.
In contrast, the basis of American society lies in the First Amendment of the US Constitution’s expansive protection of freedom of expression. Without it, all other liberties and democracy itself would erode.
Freedom of speech is predicated upon the concept of the “marketplace of ideas.” In a free market, goods and services that perform the best at the lowest price prevail while the worst products fail. In the “marketplace of ideas,” the true or best ideas will emerge from public discourse while the erroneous or otherwise detrimental ideas will be rejected.
In his First Inaugural Address in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson echoed this belief: “error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.” This is the basis of the protection of all speech, obviously excluding demonstrable crimes such as incitement of violence, under the US Constitution. Even if an opinion is considered wrong or societally deleterious, it is the place of public debate to determine that rather than the government.
A classic case of this was the Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson in 1989. The court held that a Texas law prohibiting the desecration of the American flag was unconstitutional because burning the flag was expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. Prohibition of flag desecration is no better than the forced patriotism of an authoritarian state. Whether it is societally accepted or not, the law cannot infringe on an individual citizen’s free expression.
History has proven that opinions and beliefs only supported by a small minority are often right and that opinions and beliefs held by a large majority or a government are often wrong. For example, in the early 17th century, the Catholic Church strictly cracked down on “heliocentrism,” the idea that all the planets orbit the sun. Although we now know that to be true, the belief of “geocentrism,” the idea that Earth is the center of the universe, was accepted by the vast majority of Europeans at the time, including the educated class. Galileo Galilei, considered “the father of modern science,” was charged by the Church with “vehement suspicion of heresy” because of his promotion of heliocentrism and was placed under house arrest until his death.
Restrictions on free speech can also have far more pernicious consequences than simply limiting scientific innovations. In modern-day China, government censorship of free speech undermines freedom and democracy. Any public opposition to China’s ruling party can lead to time in prison. With the Chinese government serving as the ultimate arbiter of truth, historical facts, foreign influences, and cultural practices have been suppressed or distorted in order to uphold its authoritarian regime. The obstruction of free speech is a tool for tyrannies to erase dissent, indoctrinate citizens, and annihilate liberty. Thus, free speech is both an ideological and practical basis for American society.
However, the First Amendment’s protection against limiting free speech only applies to the federal government, although the Supreme Court has interpreted this right to apply to state governments as well. Therefore, it might seem that private corporations like Facebook have the right to enforce speech on their platforms.
Yet the government is not the sole entity that threatens the “marketplace of ideas.” Especially in the age of social media, a handful of private companies also govern the forums for public discourse. They can dictate who may speak and what they may say. The problem with censorship is that it stifles intellectual diversity and dissent. With a government or private corporation, these essential troubles with censorship still apply.
Theoretically, censorship in individual social media platforms should not be a significant issue because they could easily be substituted for a multitude of viable alternatives, similar to a restaurant or grocery store. But in reality, given that only a select few companies have a practical monopoly over social media, there are few feasible replacements. Just as, barring immigration, citizens cannot choose a different government, consumers are largely unable to choose different social media platforms. For instance, Trump’s bans from Facebook and Twitter effectively deplatformed him from mainstream social media, reducing his ability to participate in the “marketplace of ideas.”
In a speech to Congress about corporate power, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”
As Roosevelt declared, the tyranny of private companies is no better than the tyranny of a government. If free speech is so sacrosanct that it cannot be curtailed by the democratically elected government of the United States, then there is no rationale as to why a small number of massive corporations can now do so. Simply because these social media platforms are not part of the government does not lessen the danger that they present. Americans cannot truly enjoy any measure of free speech while any individual or group can restrict it.
With all liberties, there are tradeoffs. Hate and misinformation are certainly byproducts of freedom of speech. Nonetheless, free speech, even speech that is considered prejudicial or untrue, is necessary to maintain a healthy democracy.
In their “comprehensive analysis” of Trump’s ban, Twitter explained that Trump had violated its policy against the “Glorification of Violence.” Specifically, Twitter cited two of his tweets, in which he thanked his supporters and stated that he was not going to attend the inauguration of Joe Biden. Not a single word in either of these tweets referenced any sort of violence.
Twitter states that “these two Tweets must be read in the context of [the January 6 riots],” but in these two tweets, he does not even allude to the claim of the election being fraudulent, much less applaud violence. It was Twitter’s own subjective assessment of these tweets that led to his suspension.
On the other hand, while Twitter has permanently banned Trump for his role in glorifying violent behavior, Twitter has ignored numerous breaches of its policies, including “Glorifying of Violence” and “Hateful Conduct,” by the Twitter accounts of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, a brutal dictator with a long record of human rights violations. These inconsistencies in enforcing their policy demonstrate the critical danger of social media censorship.
The First Amendment rights of Americans should not be subject to the arbitrary whims of social media companies.
2 thoughts on “The problem with social media censorship”
Well thought out, well written, and exactly correct! Well done, William Liu!
Great article, William!