The Washington Post asks what may be the ultimate question of our times. “Whether the largest social media companies have become so critical to public debate that being banned or blacklisted by them — whether you’re an elected official, a dissident, or even just a private citizen who runs afoul of their content policies — amounts to a form of modern-day censorship.”
“And, if so, are there circumstances under which such censorship is justified?”
The first person cited is Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Fighting over whether a given speech restriction is or isn’t censorship, she adds, is often an excuse to avoid harder, more nuanced discussions as to exactly which types of speech ought to be restricted, and by whom, and on what authority. “There are a lot of people in the U.S. who will claim to be [free speech] absolutists but then basically be fine with censoring sexuality,” she says. In contrast, expressions of sexuality are widely accepted in Germany, where York now lives, but there’s broad consensus that censorship of Holocaust denial is warranted. In New Zealand, she adds, the democratically elected government has a Chief Censor who reviews the content of films and literature. “I’m very wary of censorship,” York says. “But the reason is, who do you trust to do it? It’s not that all speech is totally equal and valid.” In other words, the problem York sees isn’t social platforms banning a powerful figure such as Trump. It’s their lack of legitimacy as arbiters of speech, especially when they’re censoring people who lack the stature to speak out through other means.
David Kaye, a law professor at University of California-Irvine and the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, agrees that we should be wary of tech giants’ power over discourse — especially in countries that lack a robust free press. But he balks at applying the term “censorship” to content moderation decisions taken by the likes of Facebook, Twitter or YouTube in the United States… We’re better off, Kaye believes, reserving the term “censorship” for the many instances around the world in which speech restrictions are backed by the power of the state. That can include cases in which “the state puts demands on social media to take down content, or criminalizes individuals who tweet,” as has happened in China, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar and elsewhere…
“If we start to dilute the idea of censorship as a state-driven tool by equating it with what platforms are doing, we start to misunderstand what platforms are actually doing, and why they’re doing it,” Kaye said.
The Post ultimately cites three experts who agree on one point: that it’s worth scrutinizing the decisions of social media platforms because of their growing influence — whether or not you end up calling it censorship. But they also cite a follow-up observation from Chinmayi Arun, a resident fellow of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.
Too often overlooked in the debates over what social networks take down is that they aren’t just passive conduits of information: Their recommendation algorithms and design decisions actively shape what speech gets heard, and by how many, and how it is framed — often fueling the kind of divisive content that they later face pressure to remove.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may or may not have censored Trump a year ago. But there’s no doubt that for years prior, they amplified and enabled him.