Recent announcements from major tech companies about what content they will censor and what they will allow are almost encouraging, but for all the wrong reasons.
Facebook said last week that its community “standards” will no longer apply to prominent politicians.
"From now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard," Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a news release.
Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki followed suit the next day, saying that content by politicians would be allowed to violate the standards to which it holds its regular users.
“When you have a political officer that is making information that is really important for their constituents to see, or for other global leaders to see, that is content that we would leave up because we think it's important for other people to see," Wojcicki reportedly said.
In one sense, these moves are a step in the right direction. Unless the politicians in question are posting credible, criminal threats or content that otherwise violates the law to the social media platforms, it should not be taken down. But that should apply to everyone, not just the politically powerful.
It’s worth noting that this is the same Susan Wojcicki who last year announced that Youtube would counter the supposed threat posed by “conspiracy theories” on its platform by accompanying them with information from Wikipedia — the notoriously unreliable online encyclopedia that literally anyone with an internet connection can edit, at least temporarily.
It’s also worth noting that many major social media platforms — including Facebook and Google, which owns Youtube — have recently been reported to be under antitrust investigations.
The alleged threat posed by similar kinds of information to those that seemingly scare Wojcicki, posted by random internet users — which may not be factually accurate and may express views some find offensive, but that really shouldn’t matter — to platforms that in many ways and for many people are the only outlet for free expression in our modern internet age, was also recently addressed by at least one politician — who, based on the recent announcements from Facebook and Youtube, is presumably free to speak his mind without having to worry about the community standards applied to commoners.
"In today's internet-connected society, misinformation, fake news, deep fakes and viral online conspiracy theories have become the norm," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said last month at a congressional hearing that provided “an opportunity for witnesses to discuss how their platforms go about identifying content and material that threatens violence and poses a real and potentially immediate danger to the public."
Wicker is not the only government official to target “conspiracy theorists.” In fact this group was recently labeled a new category of domestic extremists — the culmination, it seems, or at least the latest step, of a long-running effort that I’ve previously written about in greater detail.
Does this category include those who have long suspected President Trump of colluding with Russians? The majority of Americans who continue to believe President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy? Those who believe in the latest convictions of various small-time criminals of conspiracy to rob a bank or commit mail fraud? If the answer to these questions is yes, I suppose on one count or another I (and the FBI) must count myself and probably most people reading this as domestic extremists.
Censorship by tech companies of certain kinds of material, such as specific threats of violence against specific people, is understandable — considering that many of these categories of speech have been defined by law as exceptions to the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech by court decisions made well before the internet age.
If we are going to talk about threats, however, a much greater and more sinister one is posed by tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, which one moment promote themselves as levelers of the information playing field by giving regular people a platform for expression, and the next claim to be “publishers.”
In both a sense of what the term “publisher” has traditionally, practically meant, and a legal sense, these companies hardly fit the bill, and are attempting to get the best of both worlds. If they are publishers who want to reserve the right to pick and choose what information appears on their platforms based on the whims and delicate sensibilities of their CEOs, rather than whatever the law allows, they should also be legally responsible for that content. None of these companies, of course, want to open that can of worms.
Last week, ironically, when these latest decisions from Facebook and Youtube were announced, was Banned Books Week. Today — sadly, perhaps, or maybe not, depending on who you ask — it seems most people do more reading on their phones and Facebook pages than they do out of books (and newspapers!) Regardless of changes in technology, though, the same long-standing principles should apply. It should be needless — but who knows, if things keep going the way they have been, it may soon be impossible — to say that politicians shouldn’t be the only people allowed to freely speak their minds.