As if there wasn’t enough major news lately, one important issue appears to be getting overshadowed right now. That being a proposed executive order newly drafted by President Trump and circulating from the White House. A memo titled “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship” aims to regulate the moderation of social media sites while more specifically monitoring for bias against conservative political views. That proposal was initiated just weeks after his administration held a social media summit focusing on the matter.
The President has repeatedly accused online networks of biased treatment. His order would effectively divide said authority between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). However they will face some opposition in the form of an addendum to the First Amendment. The order tasks the FCC with determining whether social media companies are protected by a provision of Section 230 when they take down content without informing the user or censor content in a way that is characterized as “anticompetitive, unfair, or deceptive.
Which in turn begs the question: Are social media sites like Facebook and Twitter actually platforms that allow for the freedom of expression? Or do they act more as publishers of curated digital content? In the beginning that distinction was fairly clear. But as they grew, things obviously changed. Both currently play a huge part in the dissemination of news and information in our society. So where do you draw the line?
Even as Republicans move toward legislative action, numerous left wing advocates quickly jumped in to frame this policy as a “threat to online freedoms and first amendment rights”. As you may expect, opinions are mostly split into partisan blocs. Yet in a recent poll conducted by leading political source TheHill.com last December, almost 60% of registered American voters think that social networks are unfair to conservatives.
We recently saw an incident take place on Twitter that can be cited as a good example here. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his campaign team’s account was briefly suspended. “Team Mitch” shared a video clip of Black Lives Matter Louisville leader Chanelle Helm cursing and threatening McConnell with violence outside his private residence in Kentucky. This took place as the 77-year-old Senator was inside that night recovering from a fractured shoulder suffered in a fall at home.
The company subsequently claimed this material violated their community terms. Though McConnell and his team argued they were only showing the nasty behavior demonstrated by his opponents. As a result, Twitter locked the account. The company later caved when faced with mounting pressure as well as a potential advertising boycott levied by the GOP. Twitter reversed the decision on Friday, saying the video will now be available on the website alongside a “sensitive media” warning, ” and only in cases where the Tweet content does not otherwise violate the Twitter Rules. As we know, money talks.
Part of the issue at hand is they don’t provide a real definition of exactly what may be considered offensive. Even the criteria for what constitutes banned speech is largely secret and constantly changing. After Twitter mentioned last week that a set of accounts it had deleted were “sharing divisive social commentary,” it declined to address how it defined “divisive social commentary.
Along with the similarly vague set of rules, a less than rapid response time bordering on apathetic is apparent at Facebook. Full disclosure: I experienced this near apathy once myself. They offer no contact numbers. They simply direct you to leave a brief note, perhaps a screen shot then I guess pray for help.
Social media companies are not accountable to anyone but their shareholders, meaning they have little incentive to make it easy for users to complain when their posts are deleted or their accounts suspended. They typically decline to take any action or even respond in a timely fashion when they mistakenly delete a post or account. Ordinary users who run afoul of Facebook’s opaque rules have little hope of the company responding to their complaints and little recourse.
I can verify that is true in my own personal experience. Plus it is clearly no secret such leaders of Silicon Valley are liberal minded in their political views. The decision made about whether to remove or edit certain objectionable content is done entirely at their discretion. Based on recent evidence with Facebook executives lying, exploiting and making conscious efforts to deceive and take advantage of the American public, there is every reason to be skeptical of them.
Also it is vital to mention the tragic events in Dayton and El Paso that occurred two weeks ago give another impetus for action and indicate a need for actual reform. With very little supervision extremists may find a virtual safe space to spout radical rhetoric mostly free of penalty. The pair of mass shootings that claimed 31 lives over the weekend also may impact the contents of the executive order. Calls for tech platforms to censor violent content have escalated in the wake of shootings carried out by young men who share their violent ideologies with others on sites such as 8chan.
Let me ask does big tech discriminate vs. the right? How might you address the political powder keg of social media today? Dangerous types can’t be allowed to roam free. Something has to be done.