The terrifying censorship of social media corporations

The terrifying censorship of social media corporations

What’s the real reason behind Mark Zuckerberg’s hate speak ban? (File/AFP)

Facebook last week banned several users, claiming they were “dangerous.” The real danger is the ban. It may be time for liberal governments to end social media’s ability to control global conversations.

Among those banned were Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, a conspiracy theory platform, and Paul Joseph Watson, who works for Infowars. Also included was Laura Loomer, an activist and controversial independent journalist who, among other things, is known for publicly challenging Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Milo Yiannopoulos was also banned. He is an outspoken journalist and public speaker who often upsets liberal audiences. Louis Farrakhan was banned as well. He is the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, an African-American sect founded in Michigan in 1930, and an unapologetic anti-Semite who often espouses hatred of all white people.

All of the banned users have detractors. All of them say incendiary or outright hateful things. Yet this ban is more disconcerting than their presence on Facebook ever was.

Facebook left active other accounts that are much more dangerous, such as those supporting actual acts of violent terrorism. As Donald Trump Jr., the son of the US president, wrote on Twitter on Saturday: “Fan pages for Hezbollah and Hamas are still allowed on Facebook… Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘hate ban’ isn’t about safety — it’s about his own ego.” Trump Jr. made a very good point. Facebook tells us that some American and British bigots and conspiracy theorists are too dangerous, but they are not killing anyone, driving through the streets with machine guns or preparing suicide bombers. At the same time, according to Facebook, it is still acceptable to openly support and encourage the terrorism of Hezbollah and Hamas, which target civilians and destabilize much of the Middle East. Clearly, for Facebook, these bans are not really about safety.

We should not want a corporation in California having the ability to shut down conversation across such a dominant global platform. Put another way, should Facebook founder Zuckerberg determine what the website’s 2.3 billion people can say or hear? Censorship is frightening enough, but censorship at the hands of corporations is terrifying. If almost a third of the world’s population uses Facebook, it is scary to think that one man in California can determine what appears on that site. Many users now get their news and entertainment from social media sites like Facebook. Zuckerberg and his employees could drastically alter global perceptions by manipulating what is and is not allowed on his website.

We should not want a corporation in California having the ability to shut down conversation across such a dominant global platform.

Ellen R. Wald

Facebook and other tech companies could next ban speech that is both important and necessary. This censorship dilemma is bigger than Facebook. Take Google, for example. Between its control of the majority of the world’s internet searches and its wildly popular YouTube website, Google’s parent company Alphabet could also manipulate what the people of the world see and know. YouTube has already restricted or banned videos from its site, including educational lectures from the popular conservative radio host Dennis Prager.

Google is known to be working with the Chinese government, even reportedly building a censored search engine to be used in the Communist Party-controlled country. Since China is a huge and lucrative market, with a population of more than 1.4 billion people, what would happen if China told Alphabet to take down YouTube videos about the government’s persecution of Uighur Muslims? What if China told Google to hide search results showing that, last week, the US Department of Defense condemned the imprisonment of more than 1 million Uighurs in “concentration camps?” Much of the world might never know what China is doing to the Uighurs if Alphabet hides the truth in its search engines and video platforms.

As private US companies (meaning they are owned by shareholders, not governments), these tech firms are permitted to block users and specific speech. But this censorship is despised by many in America, and there is potential recourse for the US government to stop it. Currently, social media companies can avoid liability in US law on the premise that they are platforms and not publishers. However, as they increasingly choose who can use the site and who can’t, they appear to be more like publishers. They look like newspapers or magazines, choosing what goes in their publications and what stays out.

If they were to be held liable in the future, Facebook or Twitter could be sued whenever a high school student calls another student a bad name online. Defamatory YouTube videos could become major legal expenses for Alphabet. Anyone who has spent time on social media knows the vile accusations that are common there, and it is easy to see how the lawsuits could pile up. President Donald Trump and Republicans in the US government know this, and they took to social media this past weekend to warn the tech giants of the potential repercussions. Hateful rhetoric can hurt feelings and, in extreme cases, inspire violence, but we do not want a world in which individuals like Zuckerberg can determine what is and is not hateful or dangerous and then choose what we write and read.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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