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Social media companies continue to take fire from both the political left and the political right over content they post online. The left wants big social media companies to limit the spread of misinformation and to censor any form of hate speech. The right, meanwhile, wants big social media companies to censor less and to make online social media platforms a paradigm of free speech. Given these two radically different views, social media companies have no real way to win. They are going to wind up angering someone, no matter what they do.
The truth is getting very hard to find on social media
As they say, everything is bigger in Texas. And that’s even true when it comes to the debate over social media content. In Texas, there has been a tremendous legal brouhaha over a Texas law (“Texas House Bill 20”) that imposes censorship restrictions on websites active in the state. The goal is to protect the right to free speech. The law seeks to stop social media platforms from censoring any posts if doing so can be viewed as a form of discrimination against a certain viewpoint. While the law was written to be as general as possible, it’s not hard to guess what the true purpose was – to prevent Democrats from taking down content posted by Republicans.
The big social media companies fought the law, contending that it is unconstitutional. They argued that it violated their first amendment rights to free speech. By forcing them to host content they deemed objectionable, they argued, it stripped them of their right to free speech. It would be as if someone stopped by your house late at night, spray painted some hate speech messages all over your door, and then a law stopped you from cleaning up the mess. You would feel like your rights had been violated somehow.
So how did the Texas case stand up in the court of law? The U.S. Court of Appeals in Texas heard the case, and said the law should stand. That, despite the case that a U.S. Court of Appeals in the state of Florida struck down a similar law. Two different states, two different interpretations. You know what that means, right? This thing is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Media companies or social platforms?
Maybe this is over-simplifying matters, but it seems as if all of the debate around social media centers around a simple question: Are big social media entities “media companies,” or are they “social platforms”? If they are media companies, then they have much greater rights when it comes to determining which content they should post (or allow to be posted) online. If they are social media platforms, they basically have to let everything stand, as long as it is not criminal or hate speech.
In a perfect world, the big Silicon Valley social media companies would not lean one way or another when it comes to politics. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As long as they are largely biased towards the Democrats, any opposing views that challenge the narrative coming out of Washington, DC these days will be described as “extremist.”
But at least we’re not living in New Zealand these days. At the recent UN General Assembly in New York, the prime minister of New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern) gave a speech in front of the UN in which she argued that free speech contributed to chaos in the world. She argued that free speech had been “weaponized,” and that governments around the world should clamp down on these “weapons of war” in order to maintain the fabric of society. Truth is getting a lot harder to find these days on social media, and it’s especially alarming that nobody can even agree what this “truth” is anymore.