Straddling free speech and censorship: What social media should do to stay afloat | #socialmedia

Social media is straddling between saving freedoms at one end, and censoring content by restricting access to extremist groups and those who are potentially dangerous for societies at the other end.

John Nakamura Remy — Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

This article is part of the series — Tech in the New Decade.

Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, is facing increasing pressure from both politicians and activists throughout the world as fake news and propaganda have found a fertile ground on these new platforms. A recent example proving that the problem is relevant is an attempt of Donald Trump, the outgoing president of the US, to repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act — a legal shield for tech companies against court trials for publishing controversial content or giving the floor to people or groups that might be seen as extremist.

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” Section 230 reads. In other words, tech companies don’t have responsibility for posting unlawful information in contrast to journalists and publishers.

Trump and other politicians believe that such laws create numerous loopholes for spreading potentially disruptive content on Twitter, Facebook and the like. “Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the US to ‘Big Tech’ (the only companies in America that have it — corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity (sic),” Trump recently wrote on Twitter while threatening to veto the US $740 billion defence budget bill if Section 230 “is not completely terminated.”

Such an ultimatum from the US president — his threat to veto the defence budget if tech giants will keep enjoying the perks of Section 230 — might be seen as blackmail and will probably spell trouble for Twitter or Facebook, at least politically. In fact, Trump and his fellow Republicans just started a political battle against tech companies and their owners, many of whom support the Democrats. The US president argues that social media selectively censors the posts of conservative politicians like himself, pointing to the times Twitter has repeatedly tagged many of his tweets on the 2020 elections with fact-checking warnings that say, “this claim about election fraud is disputed.”

However, Twitter’s warning tags of Trump’s posts cannot be seen as censorship technically, because the president is still allowed to publish whatever he wants. Twitter’s policy rather works like a disclaimer, informing audiences that the tagged content might be false or controversial. It resembles the tactics of many media outlets, which mark all op-ed articles of contributors with the note that the opinions of non-staff writers don’t necessarily reflect the view of an editorial team.

Block and ban

In July, Twitter banned several accounts that pushed conspiracy theories driven by the pro-Trump QAnon movement, which was once described as a “domestic terror threat” by the FBI. In November, the company also blocked Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top adviser, after his calls for beheading public figures during his podcast on Twitter.

Although such measures resemble censorship, they can be justified as part of a consistent fight against domestic extremism, because hate speech and violence rhetoric on social media might spin out of control and spill into the streets eventually. Bannon’s account, for instance, was “permanently suspended for violating the Twitter Rules, specifically our policy on the glorification of violence,” a Twitter spokesperson told CBS News.

That’s another problem that indicates that tech giants are trapped in a tricky dilemma — how to save freedoms on the Internet and limitedly restrict them at the same time, and how not to overreact.

Reasonable policy

These two approaches mentioned above — tagging controversial posts with warnings and blocking radical points of views — seem to be reasonable in today’s world. After all, amidst growing pressure on big tech companies for granting too many opportunities to those who might act in bad faith, disclaimer tags and targeted blockings are the only way to keep at bay numerous critics and ward off their attacks.

At first glance, such moves may appear to be a double standard. Yet, if one puts oneself in the shoes of these social giants, it will become clear that it is the lesser evil, if one were to choose between full-fledged censorship on the on hand, and warning tags and targeted blocking on the other. Tech companies should abide by the policy of limited banning and tagging disputed content if they really want to enjoy freedoms in the future.

The main problem, however, remains unresolved: Social media is straddling between saving freedoms at one end, and censoring content by restricting access to extremist groups and those who are potentially dangerous for societies at the other end. They are between two fires, and this means that they should satisfy the interests of both conflicting groups, which is difficult. Ironically, social media faced pressure from both conservatives and liberals in the US. While Republicans criticise tech giants for alleged censorship, Democrats lambast them for the lack of censorship regarding fake news and posts spurring hatred and violence in society.

In such a situation, tech companies are the hostages of political processes. Again, the only way to navigate such turbulent waters is to employ warning tags and targeted banning throughout the world, no matter how controversial such measures might look. It is a necessary sacrifice.

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