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For the better part of two years, the battle over free speech on social media has increased in intensity. It started with observations and critiques that big social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube seemed to be “shadow banning” certain accounts by tweaking their algorithms. And that was followed with outright warnings that certain voices – typically, conservative Republican and pro-Trump voices – were being outright censored by these platforms. Anyone who didn’t go along with the mainstream media narrative were de-platformed, deleted or otherwise silenced. And now comes the disturbing sign that the battle over free speech on social media is entering a new, more aggressive phase.
The argument for and against censoring Facebook content
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, long-time tech influencer Kara Swisher suggested that Facebook wasn’t doing enough to censor pro-Trump voices online. She put all of her clout and influence behind the idea that advertisers and everyday Facebook users should defect in droves if CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t step up efforts to remove pro-Trump content from the platform. Of course, she didn’t call it “pro-Trump content” – instead, she referred to it as “hate speech” and “disinformation.” She also expressed her support for the “Stop the Hate” Facebook ad boycott campaign, which is an attempt to crack down on hate speech included as part of Facebook ads. After all, it’s a lot easier to ban content perceived to be “hate speech” than it is to ban content that doesn’t align with your own private world view.
And, that quite simply, is the problem. The media can’t have it both ways when it comes to censorship on social media. You can’t say “censor this” simply because you don’t agree with it. That’s not what free speech in America is all about. As great American patriot Patrick Henry is rumored to have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” [Patrick Henry is also notable for having said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” so we all know how much the original Founding Fathers valued the right to say what they wanted to say!]
Difficult choices for Facebook
So all this puts Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook HQ in a very difficult position. Presumably, any ad boycott program would hurt Facebook where it matters most – its wallet. The loss of advertising dollars could start to take a real hit on the company’s revenue and profitability. And, even worse, if millions of loyal Facebook users decide to defect to another platform, then the company could be facing an existential crisis. The primary allure of Facebook for many users right now, to be honest, is that all of their friends and family members are on it. So what happens when all those friends and family members decide to leave? A slow drip, drip, drip of lost users could soon turn into a major flood.
And, on the flip side, if Facebook decides to tighten the screws and censor certain types of content, then it would put into peril the whole idea of free speech. It’s one thing to ban “hate speech,” but if certain activists think that “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” content is racist and hateful, then we have a real problem here. It’s a slippery slope in which all content that does not agree with your view of the world is immediately “racist,” and in which all rivals and enemies are “white supremacists” or (even worse) “Nazis.” If you don’t think that’s a slippery slope, just look into a little history – it’s the same approach used by the Bolsheviks in Communist Russia. Anything that was not in line with Communist Party ideology was immediately grounds for punishment or detention in the gulag camps. Is that really where we want social media to lead us here in America?
Time for Facebook to choose sides in the battle over free speech?
Yes, social media has a “disinformation” problem. And, yes, social media can sometimes become a platform for radical, extremist thinking. Nobody denies this. But to come out and suggest that social media should proactively censor certain groups, certain users, certain voices and certain thoughts just because they are not part of the mainstream media narrative is just plain dangerous. And that’s especially true ahead of a 2020 election that is shaping up to be even more bitter and divisive than the one we witnessed back in 2016.