It’s hard to quarrel with Facebook’s decision to permanently ban some of the high-profile prolific and incendiary users on its social media site. Who among us would want to defend the bile of Milo Yiannopoulos and his racist slurs, the anti-Semitic rantings of Louis Farrakhan or the ugly conspiracy theories of Infowars host Alex Jones who has threatened journalists and suggested the 2012 slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., was an Obama-orchestrated hoax to promote gun control?
President Trump has suggested the Facebook purge of serial haters was part of a pattern of social media discrimination against conservatives. Trump specifically cited his concern that Paul Joseph Watson, a far-right personality who has served as Infowars editor-at-large and a purveyor of conspiracy theories and doctored videos, was on Facebook’s banned list.
Trump has warned “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH.” He has suggested that the social media’s attempt to arbitrate the limits of free speech explains why “Congress wants to get involved — and they should.”
First things first: This is not a free-speech issue. Facebook is a private enterprise, and users are free to accept or reject its parameters of acceptable expression. What Americans should be worried about is government interference with free speech.
But this controversy, as with so many others surrounding Facebook — on privacy, on its vulnerability to election meddling, on its suppression of content and exploitation of customer data from legitimate news organizations — is yet another measure of the corrosive effects of its extraordinary market domination.
Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, suggested in a New York Times opinion piece published online last week (“It’s Time to Break Up Facebook”) that the social media giant should be subject to antitrust enforcement. Among his recommendations was that it should be forced to spin off the popular apps Instagram and WhatsApp and that further acquisitions should be banned for several years.
Hughes also suggested that Congress should create a new agency to regulate tech companies, and one of its charges should be to “create guidelines for acceptable speech” on social media.
“This idea may seem un-American — we would never stand for a government agency censoring speech,” Hughes wrote. “But we already have limits on yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, child pornography, speech intended to provoke violence and false statements to manipulate stock prices. We will have to create similar standards that tech companies can use.”
I agree with Hughes on one point: The notion of government censoring speech does seem un-American. It would be precarious to police even if it were not impossibly impractical in the infinite world of cyberspace. The haters who were chased off Facebook and other sites willing to comply with the law would simply find other warrens of wanton waste to inhabit.
The more immediate remedy for Facebook accountability would be to force it to choose: Is it a platform or a publisher?
Facebook has essentially claimed each role, depending on the convenience of the moment.
Here is why it matters:
Under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a platform is not responsible for the content of its users — in much the way a cell-phone company has no liability for your conversations, no matter how offensive, or Amazon would not presume to control what you read on its Kindle device. This principle was tested in a court ruling that cleared MySpace against a claim from a teen who was sexually assaulted by an adult male who met her on the space.
However, a publisher is responsible for its content, and assumes that role by exerting its authority to select, monitor, edit or delete content — or banish users that violate its terms of service.
So which definition fits Facebook? Is it merely a town square, or a conversation curator?
It has argued both sides.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told a U.S. Senate committee in April 2018 that his company is not a “media company” or publisher that creates content. Yet in other contexts, most notably in legal proceedings, it has argued that it has a traditional newspaper-like function to determine what can and cannot be published. Zuckerberg also told the Senate that, “I agree we are responsible for the content,” even if Facebook does not produce it.
So where is this all headed? Even with its most advanced algorithms, Facebook would be hard pressed to cull the haters and purveyors of offensive speech from its 2 billion users globally. Are we headed toward a social media future where Americans separate into their ideological camps, as they have with cable news, right to Fox and left to MSNBC? Is Facebook’s banishment of Farrakhan, Jones, Yiannopoulous, Watson and a handful of prominent others just a warning shot or the start of a trend that eventually will reach your Trump-supporting uncle in Idaho or antifa-sympathizing niece in Berkeley?
Facebook’s moves came soon after the conservative furor of actor James Wood getting locked out of Twitter for his “abusive behavior.” After the Mueller report, the Hollywood star tweeted that “If you try to kill the King, you best not miss” with the hashtag #HangThemAll. The Twitter suspension did seem excessive: the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about not missing a strike on the king is often invoked metaphorically.
“The purposeful & calculated silencing of conservatives by @facebook & the rest of the Big Tech monopoly men should terrify everyone,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on May 3. “It appears they’re taking their censorship campaign to the next level. Ask yourself, how long before they come to purge you? We must fight back.”
Nothing Facebook or Twitter could do is as terrifying as government intervention in regulating social media speech. If those social media sites become overly censorious, on the right or the left, there are abundant options to families to share prom photos, birthday greetings or news articles — if we are willing to go there. The same is true if those sites become overly infected with hate.
The cold truth is that many of us are addicted to Facebook, even as we complain about the way it exploits our private information, poisons our democracy, limits our news choices and — depending on one’s point of view — bans voices we want to hear.
Perhaps the ultimate solution is not to break up Facebook, but to break up with it. If we dare.