Political Censorship in Social Media

June 4, 2021

Over the past year, social media has entered into the forefront of the conversation surrounding politics. Following the riots at the capitol on January 6th, social media companies made major reforms with the goal of stemming hate speech: Twitter banned former president Trump’s account, Amazon deplatformed the social media site Parler, and most major companies implemented fact-checking tools. But are these actions part of a broader attempt to silence dissent, or are they good hearted efforts to stop hate? Let’s take a look.

Analyzing the Evolution of Donald Trump’s Relationship with Twitter

Six thousand. That, 6,000, is approximately the number of insults former President Donald Trump made in five years on Twitter, according to the lower estimate of the New York Times. For any person, that is a lot of insults to make online. For a former President of the United States, it is totally unprecedented. Yet, despite years of calling people and organizations everything from “short and fat,” to “sadly weak,” it was not Trump’s personal attacks or hateful comments that ended in his virtual demise.

Instead, Trump was banned from Twitter on January 8, 2021 for violating Twitter’s “Glorification of Violence” policy, which is laid out in their terms of service. This came after the events of January 6, 2021, when rioters laid siege to the United States Capitol. Trump spurred on the rioters and has since been charged with Incitement of Insurrection in the U.S. House of Representatives’ impeachment proceedings.

Trump tweeted “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” on January 8.
Shortly thereafter, he sent a Tweet saying, “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

It was those two posts that Twitter determined were not only in violation of Twitter’s rules, but also in violation to such an extent that Trump’s account with the handle @realdonaldtrump needed to be permanently suspended from the platform. The major decision made by Twitter at that point was one long in the making. Trump’s dicey relationship with the platform and its rules spanned years by that point, existing in the form of a saga full of controversy and complexity.

This saga would likely not have ever existed if not for one specific Twitter policy. When an account violates Twitter’s rules, it is typically suspended for some period of time, or permanently, depending on the circumstances. Exceptions to this standard exist, however, when Twitter believes it is in the public interest to allow someone to continue tweeting while violating site rules. This is according to the platform’s public-interest exception policy, which allows tweets by large accounts that represent governments or their officials to stay online. The goal of this policy is to allow people to see important information from and about their governments, regardless of Twitter rule violations.

Still, the platform’s help center states that, “the public interest exception does not mean that any eligible public official can Tweet whatever they want.” Ultimately, it is up to Twitter to decide what actions to take, if any, in response to rule violations. So, for years, Trump was allowed to make tweets that many argue violated rules against harassment, hate, and more. Then, Twitter made the decision that Trump had crossed a line by glorifying violence with his tweets on January 8.

In the days before Trump was permanently suspended, several less severe actions were taken. Those included placing disclaimers on Trump’s tweets, removing them entirely, and temporarily locking Trump’s account. Then, the big final action was taken after the President continued acting in ways Twitter saw as unacceptable on their platform.

In the weeks after the now-former President was disallowed from using Twitter, great debate has occurred over the company’s actions in controlling their platform. Whether Trump’s banning constituted necessary action or unacceptable censorship will be argued over for years to come. In the meantime, Trump will have to take part in this public discussion, and all others, somewhere other than his favorite bird app.

Was deplatforming and banning the social media site Parler the right decision?

Parler. It’s a social media site which has come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks and months. Essentially, the premise seems very simple and positive. There is no banning of accounts and no censorship. This social media app gained over 2 million users, with conservatives flocking there to serve as a right-wing social media site. For a couple of years, Parler served as the home for right wing extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and Boogaloo Bois, given its non-existent censorship guidelines. This festering extremism came to a peak following Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, where the Capitol riots on January 6 were largely planned on the apps by extremists.

Following the catastrophic event, Amazon banned Parler from its web services, followed by media giants like Apple and Google removing it from their app stores. And just like that, as quickly as it rose to the spotlight, Parler vanished. So, this banning was a good thing, right? Removing an avenue for extremists should be lauded, right? Well, the answer is complicated.

While in this particular circumstance, the banning of Parler was the right decision by Amazon and the other tech giants, it shows the unyielding power of giant corporations. The idea that a private corporation could end a social media giant with the snap of its fingers should worry advocates for free speech. This time, it was Parler. But what if next time it is a company undeserving of a ban? It’s unfair that such a corporation has so much power that it can essentially control the media viewers consume. This has the danger of a new type of regulation of media, which cannot be prosecuted under the First Amendment.

Social media apps are being subject to criticism over censorship in recent times. (Tomer Goldfinger (’22) and Aiden Rood (’23))

This ban of Parler lends itself to a broader topic of conversation about monopolies. Largely because of deregulation, companies over the past few decades have been able to grow into monopolies without healthy competition. The perfect example of this is Amazon. Amazon has crushed its competition so strongly that in November of 2020, the European Union filed antitrust lawsuits against Amazon with the objective of reducing its unilateral control over their market sector and providing fair competition. Corporations having this much concentrated power causes an economic problem where small businesses are given no chance to succeed. Further, enormous corporations like Amazon have large control over web services and could essentially decide which online companies succeed and fail. Therefore, the United States must consider an antitrust lawsuit to promote fair competition and no dominance by a particular company.

So, what has the US done so far? In October of 2020, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law released a report on these tech giants, claiming that “Amazon’s pattern of exploiting sellers, enabled by its market dominance, raises serious competition concerns.” This, along with its aggressive behavior in censorship, must spark government regulation to ensure that tech giants cannot have unilateral control over media and information, and ensure the sanctity of American free speech.

Pros of Censorship

Throughout history, we can trace specific events of censorship. Perhaps the most controversial may be the recent censorship of former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Now, the question remains: does a private company have the right to censor individuals and remove their accounts? Yes. Private entities such as social media platforms may censor and restrict speech of individuals, as the First Amendment of the constitution only protects individuals from censorship by state or federal action.

The positives of censorship range from preventing the spread of misinformation to reducing hate speech. However, there is a fine line that may be hard to define in protecting individuals through censorship while not casting aside one side of the story.

Now, censorship should not be misused, as it is quite simple to overstep boundaries and repress individuals. However, what would a world without carefully used censorship be like? For one, there would be more conflict and hate speech in society. By preventing the circulation of harmful words aimed at certain groups, a kinder environment is promoted.

Not only that, but censorship also prevents the spread of false content and stops businesses from imparting any false information. There is no question that the censorship of child pornography, violent videos, and hate speech should be maintained. Censorship stops the spread of harmful media and protects minors.

Some may argue that the use of censorship stops the public from getting a well-rounded view on topics. However, censorship does the opposite. It regulates misleading and false content that may reach people and lead to them believing falsehoods and reaching inaccurate conclusions. One specific example can be applied to hacked social media accounts. Sometimes, hackers will spread false information about donating to fake bank accounts or other scams. Some sort of censorship will help prevent the circulation of fake information that might bring financial loss to individuals.

Censorship can also help protect new ideas, mainly in the form of patents. By protecting a product with a patent, it prevents others from taking an idea or product that someone else came up with.
Although there are disagreements about whether Trump’s Twitter account should have been permanently suspended, there is no denying that Twitter does have the right to decide to pull accounts from its platform.

Censorship has laid the groundwork for a less inflammatory and more truthful society. This is not to say that extreme censorship should be implemented. However, without moderate implementation, there may be serious consequences with false content and increased animosity.

Cons of Censorship

Over the past year, the debate over censorship has become an increasingly prominent one in the United States. How much power do private companies have over accounts? Do they have the right to censor what we post? The short answer is, yes, private companies have the right to censor what you post as they have the ownership rights to the company that you may be posting on.

However, this does not make censorship right for a multitude of reasons. A short definition of censorship is the suppression or exclusion of any piece of information. Censorship prohibits people from expressing their opinions openly, and not only that, but it also makes sure that only certain parts of information are reaching the public. The information that is reaching the public through censorship is what the companies want you to know, not the full picture. In only allowing for bits and pieces of knowledge to reach the general population, stories can be twisted into what only a select few want to have reach society’s ears. But what gives them the right to decide what the population should know about and what they shouldn’t?

People deserve to hear both sides to a story. When private companies and, in more serious cases, the government, suppress one side, this directly affects the population that may agree with that side. Additionally, it gives an unfair advantage to certain people.

As an example, Republicans and Democrats have divided the country in recent years, especially after this most recent election. If a company such as Twitter or Instagram is only advocating for one party, it shifts the population’s ideas on what that party represents. Today, social media is such a large part of so many people’s lives, and though it may not seem like it, social media platforms have the power to impact who people vote for and how they live their lives. In censoring something like a political party, a person’s ideas of what that party stands, and even perhaps for whom that person votes, are disrupted.

This is also why teachers, adults and many citizens alike, tell students and young people not to get news and reliable information from social media, because nobody really knows how much information is truly being disrupted. How can we prove that the information is reliable if it’s already been proven that some companies are censoring what is shown on social media?

Censorship can have dangerous impacts on society. It can morph people’s ideas and impact outcomes as serious as who will be the next president of the United States and as minor as what television shows are shown on TV.

Imagine yourself advocating for a specific person or organization in which you strongly believe. If a social media platform does not agree with you, your posts or even your account can be censored. Many people will look at censorship and see that it can be a positive thing, but they only agree with this when it favors their own side. Censorship is a detriment to all of us, no matter one’s own personal beliefs on what is right and wrong. In allowing censorship in our society, we risk our own personal expression. That is not a risk we should be willing to take.

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