Are social media's recent bannings a freedom of expression issue?

Starting a new thread because I think the other one (OK Let's do this: who thinks social media's recent bannings are first amendment violations?) asked the wrong question, but there was interesting discussion developing on the question of freedom of expression.

Banning incitement to violence, or anything else that’s actually illegal, should not be a problem. But going further and banning political speech (and that includes ‘hate speech’ when it can be defined so broadly) is a freedom of expression problem. I object to Twitter or Google deciding what’s true or false, or right and good, even more than to the government doing it. At least people get to vote for the government. And as for finding a different platform, we’ve seen how hollow that option is with the demise of Parler.

Like I said, I think this is a great opportunity to do something about the monopolies, now when conservatives are at the sharp end of the censorship battle. The question is whether anyone in government shares your objection to monopolies and will take advantage of the opportunity. Personally I doubt it.

Not only is it not an issue with limiting freedom of expression but we need more of this. We’ve allowed outright lies and misinformation to fester to the point of becoming an infection that can kill. And look, sooner or later, someone is coming to come and say something like “The way to combat bad information is with good information!” And in an ideal world, they would be correct. However, in the real world, all I can say is “How’s that going?” Due to the filter bubble effect [1] people do not see the good information, so the bad information becomes perpetually reinforcing. Consider the kind of madness we’re seeing right now due to misinformation:

  • Wearing a mask will make you sick
  • QAnon
  • The election was stolen
  • The Earth is flat
  • Sovereign citizens
  • SARS-CoV-2 is fake
  • Climate change is fake
  • Vaccines cause autism

And so on. The vast majority of the people who hold positions like the ones above cannot easily have their minds changed just by presenting them with new and correct facts [2]. The attempted coup on January 6th is just the latest repercussion of being overly tolerant to obvious lies. While I support free speech/freedom of expression as an ideal, there has to be a balance so that society can function.

While some of the things on the list might seem cute, e.g. “The Earth is flat”, I’m quite sure that QAnon seemed so stupid and insane that it was “cute” as well. Until it helped cause an attempted coup. Misinformation has consequences, censorship has consequences. So a balance has to be maintained (Hi Thanos!)

[1] Spohr, D. (2017). Fake news and ideological polarization: Filter bubbles and selective exposure on social media. Business Information Review , 34 (3), 150-160.

[2] Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2017). The enigma of reason . Harvard University Press.

It’s not a freedom of expression issue.

You are not allowed to post hate on a wall, or skywrite it, or put it on the internet. (You can get away with it, because social media typically refuse to moderate content, but it’s illegal.)

Twitter et al are private companies. If you walked into a private company’s office, insulted the owner’s ancestry, and speculated on their sexuality, they can kick you out. They don’t need a “verbal abuse” policy to do that, so demanding a copy of their policy would not help you avoid trespassing and harassment charges. Twitter has written policies. They aren’t usually enforced, but they’re there.

The real problem: people believe that certain companies, such as banks and social media companies, are “public”, and they’re not. The problem is worse with social media companies, because they haven’t enforced their policies, so suddenly kicking Trump off seems political. (Even if the decision was political, Twitter has the legal right to do that.) IMO social media companies need to moderate content, which would cost money, and should be liable for content published on their platform. If misbehavior was punished regularly, people wouldn’t be surprised when Twitter et al actually enforce their policies.

I notice you left out three paragraphs of my reply:

Now, as someone pointed out, no one complains when all the big tech firms ban child pornography, and the promoters thereof. And it should be pretty non-controversial to ban incitements to violence, too. Unfortunately, elements of the US political right have been so embedded in violence and racism for the last several years that suddenly clamping down on that feels like a violation.

A year or two ago my son commented that one of the big tech firms had no trouble banning Nazis and their ilk in Germany, and did it mostly with algorithms. But they couldn’t use those algorithms in the US because they flagged too many Republican politicians. That’s… kind of problematic, don’t you think?

This preceded the statement about regulating monopolies. It frames parlor, and trump, as purveyors of Nazi philosophy and goals. And i ended with

But right now we are in the midst of a crisis where armed mobs are trying to install a fascist dictator, and willing to destroy US government property, and probably happy to kill US elected representatives, to do it. I don’t want to make some legalistic argument that’s blind to that reality. I think the chief problem with Twitter, et al, shutting off the president’s calls to violent coup are that they are too little, too late.

There probably should be a public communications forum. In fact, I think every governor’s office, senator’s office, local state legislative office, etc, should maintain a public message board to which people can post, subject to the rights of free speech and the limitations thereof, financed by taxes as part of normal government operations.

If they do, I hope to god they mimic vBulletin style message boards and not the communications wasteland of Twitter and Facebook, but that’s neither here nor there…

The existence of the public boards, like the existence of NPR and PBS, would not contradict the right of commercial / private networks to operate, nor should it.

No the recent bannings are not a freedom of expression issue. Their ability to ban in general, combined with their market dominance, is a freedom of expression issue (but not a first amendment issue).

Businesses should be allowed to not enable encouragement of violence, and in my opinion they should have had the foresight to ban politicians breaking their terms of service when that started to be a major issue early in Trump’s term, instead of carving out a special exception, but they gambled on the US being more a more stable society than it currently is, and they lost.

Like what? Want to force Twitter and Facebook to share their source code with the world for free?

The other problem here is there is no monopoly, there’s a portal that people use because they want to communicate with the other people using that portal.
How does anyone propose we stop that?

For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with banning Qanon and obviously false things. But what worries me is that there is no recourse. With these tech giants, since they’re non-governmental, there is almost zero accountability. If they start banning legit arguments or legit viewpoints, who could do a thing to stop them?

Curiously I don’t think I have any ‘’‘right’’’ to post on Stormfront where legitimate arguments and viewpoints are, by definition, not allowed for long.

IMHO, many people who are cheering the crackdown are only seeing the short-term benefit and not considering the detrimental effects of oligarchy in the long run. An eventual case of “I didn’t think the leopard would eat MY face.”

Or, “who will guard the guards.”

Indeed. They only come after (a) the attempt at violent overthrow does happen (though half-arsedly) and (b) having failed, the providers only now feel “safe” that they no longer have to fear a repeal of 230.

And yes, more than a freedom of expression thing it’s a markets thing. Heck, back in Ye Olde Days, seditionists and wingnuts had to just pass along mimeographed newsletters or self-publish their “books” and sell them in lower-end newsstands next to the porn. They were not entitled to be distributed by the major houses or sold at the major bookstores. Their letters to the Editor would just get tossed if they were incomprehensible or vile. That did not mean they were being deprived of their freedom, did it? The publishers and bookstores were not “common carriers” obligated to convey anything anyone wanted to sell through them.

Today we deal with a distorted market situation, where there is a perception that if you’re not on Amazon/Google/Twitter/Apple you might as well not exist… but that may be just a reflection of a culture of both content creator and consumer audience that doesn’t want to go, one of them through the effort and expense of of actually setting up their own server hosts and environments, and the others through that of looking up the sites the “hard” way. I commented elsewhere, why in the world would the runners of Parler want to be hosted at AMAZON of all places? They just went for whatever was easiest. Heck, their verifier application was a *&^%$# Free Trial!

It’s a monopoly but born out of its purpose. If everyone used a different service, you couldn’t all communicate. Much like the telephone system everyone has to be hooked up. So when that monopoly was broken up they needed a bunch of rules about sharing the infrastructure. Not sure what the parallel could be for breaking up one of the big social networks.

But that makes me wonder, what if Ma Bell had decided to discontinue phone service to various people for similar reasons?

Which is why we have free speech and free press enshrined in our Constitution. Private enterprises are not the guards.

If your actual intent was to get some rubes to upload their driver’s licenses and Social Security cards then why pay for a verification app comrade… I mean friend!

It is definitely very tricky. The so-called marketplace of ideas has grown in scale and efficiency at a ferocious pace, and we’re playing catch-up on how to manage it in a way that works both for individual rights and societal good.

As I said elsewhere, the megacorporations were 100% right to use their power in this way in this case. The problem is that they have so much power in the first place.

Facebook and Twitter are new sorts of monopolies: while there’s definitely the ability for anyone to start their own service, the communications ecosystem created within Facebook, coupled with their ability to buy up rivals like Instagram, makes it incredibly difficult for others to break in in any real way. As people join, the joiners themselves become part of the product and are a product unavailable in other social media companies.

And when such a significant portion of public discourse is happening on the soapboxes owned by so few people, that presents a problem to free speech. Not to the first amendment, but to free speech. Protecting speech that cannot be heard is not especially significant.

It’s weird, and nineteenth and twentieth century anti-monopoly laws are insufficient to confront this new sort of communications oligarchy. We need to think about how we can confront it with new legislation.

So, no: we shouldn’t be proud of these industrial titans for finally doing the right thing, having realized that mob rule is bad for the bottom line. But we shouldn’t deny that they did the right thing. And then we should make it so that next time, they’re not put in the position of having to decide whether to wield their overwhelming power similarly.

Perhaps, but it is amazingly simple to ignore both Facebook and Twitter. People who do find value in those services can continue to share family photos and lunch recipes If the companies want to restrict political discussions, we have a robust site right here on SDMB to debate the issues of the day.

I could see some sort of “electronic common carrier” legislative framework being developed. After all, if they get immunity from litigation under s. 230, shouldn’t they have a corresponding public obligation?

I agree this is a problem. But I think one of the reasons for it is loss of trust in government and authorities who say one thing and do another, eg by disobeying their own lockdown rules, or appear partial and politically motivated by eg declaring that massive public gatherings are fine when they are BLM protests. Censorship, or even the appearance of it, will just make this loss of trust exponentially worse. I don’t have a good solution for it unfortunately, other than trying to get trust back by being very honest and impartial, and being seen to be such.

It’s not “amazingly simple,” unfortunately. For my organizing work as a union local president, for example, Facebook is a pretty important tool for reaching people that are otherwise much harder to reach. Again, the people who have joined become part of the service’s product in a bizarre way that our laws haven’t caught up with.