The Looming Threat of Social Media Censorship

By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Human Security Program Manager

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

Tech giants like Facebook have come under increased scrutiny for the role they play in disseminating news and information, especially as it pertains to the spread of false narratives and divisive rhetoric. And rightly so. In 2018, in a testimony before a joint Senate Committee, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted responsibility for failing to stop the spread of fake news on his platform, which many speculate contributed to Trump’s 2016 presidential win. Since then, social media companies have moved in an opposite direction — toward censorship. Following the January 6th Capitol insurrection, Twitter swiftly issued a ban on Trump’s personal account for inciting violence. Google and Apple followed suit by taking Parler, a social networking platform popular amongst right-wingers, off their app stores. Efforts on the part of tech companies to counter hate speech is welcome; however, broad censorship brings about a new set of concerns about precedence, overreach, and accountability. The ultimate dilemma here is this: neither can we allow hate speech to go unchecked under the guise of free speech, nor can we let Silicon Valley executives determine the parameters for censorship.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are amongst those who have expressed concerns over Twitter’s Trump ban. Navalny’s Twitter thread pinpoints a glaring hypocrisy on the social network’s part: murderous heads of states like Nicolás Maduro and Vladimir Putin as well as civilians who issue death threats continue to tweet freely. Meanwhile, Twitter has gotten embroiled in India’s cultural wars and divisive politics, temporarily silencing dissenters to Modi’s autocratic regime amidst the farmer protests. How did the company executives determine which tweets to censor? The Ministry of Electronics and IT issued the order to block around 250 accounts and tweets. This is where the issue gets particularly complex. The expanding power of tech companies whose executives are neither elected representatives of the people nor legal experts should certainly be checked. But if the regulator is the national government, how can social media be combed for hate speech through an unbiased lens? The Modi government’s directives to Twitter plainly depict how government intervention can go wrong.

Without adequate accountability measures, social networks should not impose censorship as they see fit. Their leadership is not elected by the general public to uphold or police constitutional rights, and as such, they cannot legitimately determine free speech guidelines. In the long run, the ban on Trump’s twitter account may very well act as a precedent for Big Tech to extinguish a myriad of different voices, including those of the American Muslim communities. Facebook already seems to have set foot on this path. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) recently issued a coalition letter to Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg requesting them to not enact Facebook’s proposal to flag the term “Zionist” as anti-Semitic. As JVP correctly identifies, doing so would suppress legitimate discussions around Israel’s treatment of Palestinians instead of counteracting the works of actual anti-Semites like “white supremacists and evangelical Christian Zionists, [who] explicitly support Zionism and Israel, while engaging in speech and actions that dehumanize […] Jewish people.” Does this mean Facebook and Twitter should abandon their fact-checking protocols? Well, not exactly.

Fact-checking is a black and white issue. The truth is backed up by hard evidence, therefore, social networks can and should filter out politically incendiary posts founded upon falsehood (aka fake news). In the same vein, Twitter and Instagram’s notice banners informing users of disputed content falls into this black and white category. But that’s where the line should be drawn.

The United States believes in the free market system, but as the GameStop-Robinhood fiasco of recent weeks proves, the myth of the invisible hand is a sham and the market needs regulation. Similarly, when free speech on social media morphs into hate speech and incites violence, the federal government needs to inject those platforms with a healthy dose of regulation. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides tech companies with considerable federal immunity for third-party content and allows them to remove content they deem “objectionable”. It has been traditionally invoked in debates around tech accountability, but that law is now a quarter century old. Over the course of those years, digital technology has made leaps in advancement to the point where Section 230 is simply no longer relevant. We need new legislation to protect against digital hate speech without compromising our First Amendment rights. Only Congress can be most effective in leading this initiative.

As we have seen with Twitter in India, government regulation can get murky. If a few years down the line, another bigoted leader is elected as President of the United States, we cannot let them take advantage of tech censorship. It will be difficult to draft up a solution — these regulatory practices must be apolitical for them to hold the test of time. Other nations, like Britain and Singapore, have regulations in place for social media. The costs of legislative inaction on our part are too high. Unregulated digital censorship not only sets a dangerous precedent on suppression of free speech but also paves the way for further abuses of power. The 117th Congress will need to prioritize legislating on this issue.

We at MPAC, along with our coalition partners, will ensure that the 117th Congress will prioritize this issue, as America ventures down this uncharted path.