A visualization in the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London.
Has Social Media Killed Free Speech?
Two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook had last December considered banning Donald Trump from its network for violations of its content standards and that founder Mark Zuckerberg had intervened to prevent the ban, arguing that banning a presidential candidate in the midst of an election would be too disruptive. Earlier this summer Facebook released its list of monitored media outlets that controlled what made it into its Trending Topics module at the time, which demonstrated clear geographic bias against Africa and the Middle East.
Just last month Facebook generated global headlines when it banned an iconic Vietnam war image from its platform before eventually backtracking. Similarly, over the past year Twitter has revised its own terms of service to more aggressively police content on its platform. What does this tell us about the future of free speech online?
As I wrote earlier this month, Facebook’s ascendant role as curator of the information we consume online, especially news content, places it at an ever-more-central juncture in the information ecosystem. In fact, Facebook could even ultimately replace the news media itself by eliminating the news outlets as middlemen and instead connecting consumers directly with citizens immersed in a story, providing real time contextualized narratives onto a breaking story.
Yet, Facebook in particular is increasingly playing the role of editor-in-chief when it comes to news consumption, with an ever-increasing percentage of Americans turning to the platform for their news rather than directly browsing individual outlets’ websites. This means that what Facebook allows and disallows on its platform could easily extend to the kind of news topics it deems acceptable.
Here in the United States, the First Amendment, adopted just shy of 225 years ago, offers exceptionally strong protections against abridging freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Such protections have become iconic ideals of American society, enshrined in the concept of freedom that America projects to the rest of the world. In contrast, some countries significantly restrict the freedom of their citizens to express themselves, with some going as far as to criminalize criticism of the government, sometimes punishable by death.
Yet, despite the vast differences in freedom of expression across the world, the one constant is that each nation has developed its own set of standards that comport with what society or government there believes is in the best interests of that society. In Germany, Nazi symbols are criminally banned, while in Thailand criticism of the king is prohibited and in some middle eastern countries, depictions of women, including self-portraits, are tightly regulated. While not all members of society in each of these countries may agree with these limitations and indeed some limitations may be forcibly enacted through non-democratic processes, as a whole the world reflects a rich patchwork quilt of standards of what constitutes acceptable speech.
When it comes to legal systems, each nation defines what it wants to permit as acceptable speech by its citizens. Those standards apply only within that country’s borders or to its citizens. While a Thai citizen living in Thailand can be arrested for criticizing the king, an American living in the US cannot be arrested and extradited to Thailand for tweeting a criticism of the king.
This has enabled a vibrant and multicultural world to express itself in the brave new world of the internet. Making this possible is that the web is a vast decentralized network of servers all over the world. Yet, over the past decade the Internet has slowly begun to centralize into a set of walled gardens that wield absolute control over their contents. Take Facebook and Twitter as examples. Both companies enact single globally-enforced terms of service that define what constitutes acceptable speech on their platforms. At any moment either site can remove a post or ban a user instantly for what it deems to be violations of those standards. Unlike in a court of law, appeal processes for overturning a ban are limited at best. Moreover, users have no legal standing to force a company like Facebook to allow them to post particular content - the sites are not public spaces, they are private commercial property over which their parent companies exact absolute control.
In the case of Facebook, as the Wall Street Journal’s report notes, a single person, Mark Zuckerberg himself, wields absolute and ultimate authority over what is permitted on the platform’s walled garden and what is removed. When I asked Facebook last month for comment on how it views freedom of speech in an increasingly global world in which the countries it operates in have vastly different standards on what is permitted speech, the company declined to state for the record that it would always enforce a Western view of freedom of speech as it globalizes and left open the door that it could actually restrict what even Americans could post as it contends with the forceful winds of the lowest common denominator of free speech.
In the end, instead of connecting the world by empowering everyone with a voice, could social media ultimately lead to the demise of freedom of speech globally as it seals the internet off into a few walled gardens run as absolute dictatorships that enforce a single global standard of acceptable speech defined by the lowest common denominator? Will this be the world of infinite freedom envisioned by the web’s pioneers or will it be a new dystopia of 1984? Only time will tell.
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