Free Speech is Not Free

2020 is the 1984 of Social Media

Social media took shape as a form of alt-media: for the people, of the people, by the people. It was meant to put power back into the hands of the people. Though Twitter & Facebook started with a different niche audience in the beginning, both grew in size to achieve a measurable influence over people’s minds on all matters of public interest. Publishers, journalists, authors, lawyers, founders, independent creatives, all took the freedom given to express themselves and use the platform to give an alternative to mainstream media outlets as sole voices of authority on any topic. So far so good.

Fast Forward to 2020—the 1984 of Social Media

Social media was a giant experiment in freedom of speech…that went wrong.

Voters need information on political candidates to make up their minds about who they should vote for. Whether the information is authentic or goes in favour of the candidates or not is a decision that must be left to the voters. After all, that is what democracy is about: letting people take the decisions when it comes to politics. The role of social media in this scenario is to empower the people—the voters, the journalists, the whistleblowers on all aspects of efficiency or lack thereof of the political candidates in question. The decision is to be left in the hands of the people.

A few days ago, New York Times broke out a story on Donald Trump’s tax returns. Nobody flinched. Then tapes of Melania Trump found a way to media houses, with nothing specifically incriminating in them. No media report was banned for releasing these reports. A day ago, New York Post released a report on Hunter Biden’s email trail on interactions with a Ukrainian company, with a request to setup a meeting with Joe Biden while he was the VP. This report was banned by Twitter and Facebook. Problem?

Is the Social Media Ban OK?

The lines of what is legal and what is not begin to blur very quickly when it comes to methods of obtaining information and legitimacy of information itself. Whether it is ethical or not is yet another question, hard to answer by the wisest.

Social media has taken upon itself to ban anything they consider inappropriate, irrespective of whether the readers consider it appropriate or not, the law considers it legal or not. So, in effect, social media is now playing the role of an independent jury, with enough power to promote some message and suppress another message, allow advertising or ban advertising, all based on the judgement of a handful of people who don’t necessarily have the best qualifications or intentions to decide what is worth sharing and what is not.

Twitter’s clarification on why they banned the post in no way affirms a Twitter user’s trust on the platform. This is not just about Hunter Biden’s email records being banned from sharing. This is a question for every Twitter user. What is the rubric being used to judge whether a certain action qualifies as “hacking” or otherwise? Twitter’s policy documents are framed to make their policy opaque rather than transparent. Is every Twitter user expected to understand Legalese and consult a lawyer before sharing something on social media? Um, I’m going to go with “No.” So if the policy is so user-un-friendly, what purpose does it really serve? As far as evidence goes, it seems like it helps the platform use the policy selectively when it suits them, and not use it when it does not suit them. There have been plenty of incidents when users were doxed on Twitter, they were issued death threats, but Twitter Safety was in state of deep slumber. Ditto for Facebook.

Are We Ruled By Social Media Police?

If Twitter/Facebook are unable to micromanage every single tweet, post, interaction and information posted on the platforms, it is probably in everybody’s interest that they allow a “free market” like space for content sharing: let people find the balance and choose what they want to believe. Let them judge what is scientific and what is unscientific. Let them decide what is information and what is misinformation.

Even Democrat supporters can judge for themselves whether Hunter Biden’s emails are authentic or not, incriminating or not, and whether that really affects Joe Biden’s candidacy or not. Many people may not attach importance to the episode at all. So why police information out of sight, just because?

Twitter and Facebook’s algorithms have been something of a mystery for a long time, the proverbial black box. Beyond just the banning of content, Twitter/Facebook users deserve to know what decides what information a user sees on their news feed, “trending,” “What’s Happening” etc, how often they see it, and if there is any bias in the process of selectively promoting or suppressing users or messages. What we see feeds our minds. What feeds our minds decides the quality of our lives, in the big picture. Are we being exposed to conflict and confusing updates more than we need to? Are we being told what to think, rather than being encouraged to think? Twitter/Facebook users need some answers.

Data Privacy Remains

This does not imply that compromising on data privacy is somehow acceptable. No. It means that protecting data privacy is the job of the publishers: the content creators. They should be held accountable. But social media are platforms, not publishers. They do not create the content. The only scenario in which they should, ideally, ban a person or a message, is when it is legally required to do so. As long as there is doubt or a question about the legality of something, they should be neutral, not the arbiters of justice. Especially since the platforms themselves have a questionable history on the issue of data privacy, they are not in any position to dole out justice on that matter. Facebook’s imbroglio on data privacy, though ~5 years old, is still fresh in the minds of many. Twitter’s giant hole in security, leading to a hacking of the most influential accounts on Twitter is only a few weeks old. Are the same platforms claiming that they understand data privacy and professing to protect data privacy by banning users and content, while they are unable to solve their own data privacy problems?

If some media outlet does flout data privacy law, they should be taken to court by those who are wronged. Twitter and Facebook are not the court.

Image is representative. Credit: Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels

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