Big tech censorship as a threat to free speech and democracy

In today’s society, social media play a significant role on our everyday lives. They provide the digital space where we meet each other, make friends and even enemies, share our experiences, thoughts and ideas, discuss and debate, have fun and enjoy the most extended public network that connects humanity. Billions of people are connected every day to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, among many others. After all, every human being inherently needs to socialize, and social media have provided just that sufficiently and successfully.

Over the course of the last decade, these platforms have only grown in popularity and active users. Everybody had the ability to express his/her mind freely, without the fear of repercussions or censorship. Well, apparently no more. Lately, we come to witness more and more posts removed or flagged as disputed or misinformation and users blocked, based on the vague community guidelines in place by social media networks. Especially during covid-19 pandemic, controversial views and less mainstream news about the pandemic are censored as misinformation, either accurate or not. It doesn’t matter. As long as it challenges the official, mainstream narrative, it might come down. Such incidents have been reported around the US elections and other controversial current events as well. How democratic and justified is that though?

Platforms that were founded on the premise of free speech, free communication and unbiased, pluralistic information have gradually turned into restrictive, single-narrative networks, where different opinions or alternative reporting are not welcome in some cases. There is a broader issue at hand regarding the dangers for free speech in this process. Deleting content related to terrorism, violence or child pornography, which is universally condemned and of course illegal, differs from censoring views, ideas or information that might be considered politically incorrect or disputed. Free speech is a constitutional right in every democratic society and this right extends on the internet, as well.

The introduction of fact-checking, the process of verifying and labeling ‘suspicious’ information uploaded, which is more and more widely used by social media platforms to monitor content, is totally incompatible with the freedoms of expression and information. Who, after all, has the authority to claim that they are the guardians of truth and facts? Who determines what is true and what is misinformation? Last time I checked there is not one and only truth. Who has the power to pretend being information police putting labels and flags on whatever they consider not true or disputed? Is this the attitude we expect from a democratically oriented society that values various views and ideas? As you see, there are many crucial questions arising, when it comes to the superpowers of social media platforms to monitor and control the information available online. Their conduct has been the subject of several hearings before the U.S. Congress recently, where their CEOs were asked to provided explanations about the growing content moderation leading to censorship.

Some people claim that these are private corporations and – whether they are right or wrong – they have every right or authority to monitor and censor the content uploaded on their websites. This argument is false even if it generally reflects how private businesses work because these specific corporations are protected by the law for any content uploaded in their networks. They are considered to be ‘public forums’, according to the U.S. Section 230. Everybody can post whatever they like and that person alone is legally liable for it. When these organizations begin censoring and deleting content, they discard the privilege to be called a public forum. They operate as an editor or a publisher and therefore they should eventually be legally responsible for their content. So, frankly, there is an unresolved legal issue in this case. If they want to keep their status and the legal protections included, then they do not get to remove content, like we witness every day. Legislative action will soon be taken in the United States addressing this paradox. Thus, big tech corporations that now actively remove or restrict content limiting free speech will have no right or authority to do so, legally or as part of their informal, institutional role in today’s society.

As a result of this systematic and growing censorship, more and more people, primarily in the United States, have started leaving the dominant social media platforms, looking for alternative, unbiased and free speech-oriented platforms. Alternative networks, like MeWe and Parler are growing fast, challenging the monopoly of Facebook and Twitter respectively, on the long term. They vow to provide users with privacy and their freedoms that have been suppressed by the dominant platforms, as the latter have progressively deviated from their foundation of free communication and concerns are raised around some certainly suspicious policies they adopt.

Democracy means free speech and is only benefited in the presence of different ideas that co-exist and shape public opinion. Social media today are a dominant source of information and indeed shape public opinion. Therefore, people are entitled to express themselves freely. ‘Wrong or ‘controversial’ speech is still free speech in need of protection there, as well. As most people turn to social media for everyday information, a systematic censorship would mean that people get access to very specific and limited content, carefully censored, narrowing their view of the world. There are reasonable concerns about their ability to impose a certain agenda to the public. If we reach the point of widespread control of the information circulated, that could as well be the very beginning of new era of oppression. A dangerous path towards intolerance and bias, threatening the core of democracy and the right to free speech. That might seem distant, but the signs are there for everyone to see and become concerned about the future.

Will we be able to control the immense and unregulated powers of big tech before it’s too late? Do they pose a potentially existential threat to our freedoms and democracy? Short questions, tough answers. Food for thought.

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