Free Speech To Controlled Speech: Is Social Media The Right Judge?

Most of the world is dismayed with Donald Trump all the time. A few days ago, Twitter decided to use its power towards this sentiment. It put up a warning over a tweet where Trump said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” with a pretence of not knowing its historical context. Vigilantic as it may seem, the real world is not Twitter’s Gotham to save, and let’s explore why.

In 2019, Twitter decided to hide certain tweets unacceptable as per its policy behind warnings. Not just this, but these flagged tweets would also receive ‘limited engagement’ i.e. likes, replies, retweets would be disabled and visibility in the explore section would be restricted. Twitter and Trump have had tiffs in the past too, but May 2020 was the first time the social media platform put a warning to one of his tweets.

The basics

Firstly, I must begin by emphasizing that there are practically only three significant players in this game- Google, Facebook, and Twitter. In all the years of their existence, they have had their own issues with censorship of content. Secondly, content which is outright violent (ISIS videos, for example), or contains explicit nudity, and the likes is a no-brainer. There are no two ways about it being restricted. However, the place where we needed to draw lines a long time ago but unfortunately needed a Trump controversy to finally consider it, is political speech and opinions.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal must be mentioned first. In 2018, The Guardian and the New York Times came out with a story that personal data of millions of Facebook users was unethically accessed by a political consulting group called Cambridge Analytica. This data was allegedly used to propagate views pro Trump’s presidential campaign, and pro Brexit. This story raised a very fundamental question. Why wasn’t the undue access tech companies have into our lives not questioned so strongly before? We seemed to be okay with them knowing exactly where we were hanging out and selling us things. However, when it comes to selling us ideas, things change. The masses aren’t to blame for this as much as policymakers are, for not foreseeing this eventuality and ignoring internet regulation as if it was a parallel universe.

Censorship is important, of course. Simple fact-checking by Twitter has highlighted crucial misinformation in powerful people’s tweets. It took down tweets by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro which claimed unproven cures for Covid-19. However,notably, Trump’s famous ‘Lysol’ video remains untouched.

Past instances

About a year ago, Facebook banned 7 accounts on its platform, 6 of which were far-right US politicians. They were all held under the radar of hate speech. Hate as a term has a very ambiguous definition in social media policy. ‘A hate organization is defined as: any association of three or more people that is organized under a name, sign, or symbol and that has an ideology, statements, or physical actions that attack individuals based on characteristics, including race, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, serious disease or disability,’ as per the Facebook community standards page. As per this, if you even use abusive language on Facebook without direct references to a specific person or identity, you could get away with it. We all know that happens all too often. This leaves a lot of room for political bias by companies like Facebook.

Consider this against scores of Antifa Facebook pages remaining unbanned. Antifa, short for anti-fascism, is a broad anarchist far-left movement which has multiple groups under its umbrella. Antifa protesters have been known to get into physical fights with right-wing protesters on the streets of the US. Antifa has been labelled a terrorist group by the Trump administration. Apart from questioning Trump’s reasonability in calling Antifa terrorists, what we must not fail to question is Facebook’s selective censorship of right-wing speech.

With great reach comes great power

Facebook has 2.45 billion monthly active users. Instagram, too, recently crossed the billion mark. Twitter stands at 330 million. As per reports, more than half of US residents rely on social media for news. What started as platforms are now turning into publications. As per the same Pew Research Centre study, 75% of Republican-inclining Americans thought that social media has too much control on the news, as opposed to 53% of Democratic-inclining Americans with the same view. If the whole point of the Left liberal movement and social media freedom is free speech, how is a bias against the Right in terms of what reaches the masses justified? The principle of free speech is in the spirit of everyone being heard and a fair discourse being held, but it is increasingly becoming about liberals screaming and not listening to anyone else.

It gets even darker the moment you bring the advertising side of social media into picture. In 2019, digital advertising investment accounted for almost half of all advertising investment in the world. As per an Accenture research in 2018, 63% of the global population prefers buying from brands which reflect their personal values and opinions. In an age where brands are getting more and more personal and becoming tools of propaganda, how can we trust a Jack Dorsey or a Mark Zuckerberg with being unbiased towards brands that don’t fit into their own beliefs? Moreover, what if they are under economic pressure from a group of brands holding a certain belief to push their content? This is similar to the pressure faced by news publications from advertisers. If regulations are decided by an external power and not by these platforms themselves, it takes away the platforms’ scope for bias.

So, who is the right regulator?

There is no law stopping Facebook or Twitter from shutting voices down. As independent journalist Tim Pool had opined, the oligopoly of Facebook (which also means Instagram and WhatsApp), Twitter, and Google needs to be broken. Only when more players are allowed to enter the market, there will be more space for diverse voices to be heard. Facebook’s refusal to follow suit in Twitter’s recent actions against Donald Trump are setting a fair precedent. However, that’s not a solution. The solution, perhaps,is a stronger policy for running social media companies. As far as content is concerned, social media currently lies between platform and publisher, which gives it unfair power without fair regulation. It’s high time we had unique laws and autonomous bodies checking social media.


Snehal is Columnist at GGI.

She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past. 

Snehal is a graduate from the  Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.

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