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It’s no longer possible to gloss over the fact that the world’s most influential social media platforms are engaging in a form of online censorship. Whether it’s silencing voices on the political right, de-platforming so-called “conspiracy theorists,” or making efforts to hide the views of certain groups on hot-button issues like abortion or vaccines, Twitter and Facebook are playing a role in what gets talked about online.
Of course, social media platforms don’t actually call it “censorship.” It’s usually talked about using a number of clever euphemisms, such as “de-platforming” (kicking people you don’t like off your social media platform) or “shadow banning” (tweaking your algorithms to hide content you don’t like in order to prevent it from showing up in news feeds). But here’s the reality: social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are at least indirectly impacting the right to free speech and freedom of expression in America.
The White House launches new tool to report censorship
And now the Trump Administration is taking notice. After months of hearing about how Republicans and conservatives have been silenced online, and months of hearing complaints about subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that social media giants are changing the rules of the road online, the White House finally took action. Using the online TypeForm platform, the White House encouraged anyone who thought they had been unfairly silenced online to share their story: “If you suspect political bias caused an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.”
President Trump, who has long used Twitter to reach his fan base and do an end-around the mainstream media, is also taking notice on a personal level. Reports continue to circulate that he’s concerned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is deliberately taking steps to suppress his reach across Twitter. The launch of the White House online tool to report censorship, in many ways, was designed to send a public message that suppression of free speech will not be tolerated in America.
Why online censorship matters
With the 2020 election coming up soon, it’s easy to see why so much attention is now being given to social media censorship. In the past, if you controlled the printing presses and the airwaves, you had a good chance of winning an election. In today’s digital world, it’s now control over social media that matters. Social media platforms like Twitter have always skewed left politically, and it’s clear that they are trying to do their part to sway the 2020 election in favor of left-leaning voices. In this context, de-platforming and shadow banning is a form of silencing one’s political opponents.
How you view the current debate over online censorship probably reflects your view of social media as a whole. If you view social media as a private walled garden, then you probably think Twitter has the right to do anything it wants to keep that private walled garden as pristine as possible. However, if you view social media as a type of public utility or public forum that should be accessible to all, then the picture is much different. Any form of censorship – even if it is algorithmic censorship and not human censorship – cannot be tolerated in a nation that prides itself on the right to free speech.