This week, the Supreme Court is hearing two cases that could upend the way we’ve come to understand freedom of speech on the internet. Both Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh ask the court to reconsider how the law interprets Section 230, a regulation that protects companies from legal liability for user-generated content. Gizmodo will be running a series of pieces about the past, present, and future of online speech.
Tumblr had a problem. It’s “called the pro-ana community, ana being short for anorexia,” said Tumblr CEO Matt Mullenweg in a recent interview. People were using the social media site to encourage eating disorders and giving out tips on how to avoid food. “It’s not illegal,” Mullenweg said, but as a tech platform “it is your responsibility to control the distribution of that, to tamp it down if people are posting it, and to try to provide them pointers to resources.” That’s exactly what Tumblr’s content moderation team did: censorship.
The pro-ana issue is an easy example of censorship most people can agree on, but our desire to suppress content goes much further. In fact, you can argue that effective censorship is the whole reason social media and tech platforms are successful. As The Verge’s Nilay Patel has argued, “content moderation is the product” that social media companies make. They filter out things you don’t want to see, and surface content you’ll like. This isn’t limited to the web. Burying some material and limiting others is essential to a functioning society.
The truth is you love censorship, and so does everyone else. The only question is whether you’re ready to admit it.
“Everybody complains about being censored,” Marjorie Heins, a First Amendment lawyer and founder of the Free Expression Policy Project, told Gizmodo. “But at the same time, almost everybody wants to silence things that they find to be really offensive or violating their morality.”
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Today content moderation is controversial, especially on the right, in large part because of Google, Meta, and Twitter’s bumbling, too-little-too-late response to misinformation about COVID-19 and the 2020 election. But many of the loudest complaints about big tech censorship come from people who are thrilled to silence ideas they don’t like in other contexts.
Tucker Carlson often rails at Silicon Valley for “controlling what you’re now allowed to think and say in America.” At the same time, he spent the last year howling about politically-correct changes to M&M’s advertising mascots. “The green M&M, you will notice, is no longer wearing sexy boots,” Carlson said in one breathless tirade, accusing the Mars corporation of caving to the left by introducing spokes-candies he doesn’t want to sleep with. Carlson pledged to “launch a deeper investigation” into the candy monger’s “woke” agenda, but M&M’s dropped their mascots, which the TV host celebrated as a personal victory.
Elon Musk is another example. For a moment, Musk was hailed as a champion of the world’s “free speech absolutists,” a term he regularly (and inaccurately) uses to describe his views. But right off the bat, Musk started banning critical journalists and adjusted the app’s algorithm to promote Twitter Blue subscribers while demoting posts from anyone who isn’t paying the $8 a month protection fee.
Let’s address an obvious counterargument. I am not saying that censorship, in general, is good. For one, social media companies have been accused of suppressing the accounts of activists and oppressed minorities. That’s bad! What I’m saying is censorship is a bad word for a neutral thing. Some censorship is good, and some censorship is bad, but it’s something we rely on and enjoy.
Recently, the Free Speech Debate has coalesced around inherently political issues, like elections or the pandemic response, but you also find people trying to protect or censor speech in areas that feel more personal. Back in the ‘90s, video games, TV, and hip hop raised questions about violence and pornography in the media, and the debate didn’t split along party lines. Out-of-control political correctness was a hot topic in conservative media, while left-wing members of the feminist movement argued that all pornography should be banned.
The issues even made their way to the courts. “The way First Amendment law has broken down is that violent content is almost always protected, unless it rises to the level of an actual threat or incitement. Whereas sexual content has long been censored on these very vague standards of obscenity,” Heins said.
We’ve landed on a system that is largely flexible—though it is often unsatisfying even to people making the policies. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer once complained that the modern interpretation of the First Amendment would only ban a violent video game depicting a tortured woman if she was also topless. But while we can all disagree about the actual rules, few people believe that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on pornography or violence in the media.
Censoring certain kinds of content actually promotes free expression. Let’s say the hate speech problem on Twitter got even more out of control than it already is. People of color would probably feel less and less comfortable voicing their opinions out of fear of being attacked. They would self-censor. If you choose to censor hate speech, you’re making a decision to silence some voices to boost others.
Anyone who doesn’t like that can say “too bad, not my problem,” but Twitter sets out to create an environment where everyone can join in on the dialogue. And more importantly, that’s what people want Twitter to be.
We often hear about the utopian vision of the “marketplace of ideas,” a world where everyone is allowed to voice their opinions and the best ideas rise to the top thanks to the wonders of reason and capitalism. Sounds great, but that is not what 99% of people actually look for in a tech platform.
“There’s lots of material that is protected by the First Amendment that people don’t want to see on social media platforms in most cases,” said Stephen Bates, a professor who researches First Amendment law and censorship at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Their purpose is to keep people happy and engaged. As long as corporations want to maximize profits, there’s going to be censorship beyond what the First Amendment commands.”
4Chan and Gab are great illustrations. There is essentially no content moderation on those platforms. What do people do with that freedom? They post pornography that’s legally questionable if not obviously unpermitted, set up organized harassment campaigns, and say the N-word a lot. 4chan, at least, does churn out some good memes from time to time, but these sites sit far outside the mainstream. This may come as a shock, but most people don’t like being on websites full of racial slurs and upsetting content. These aren’t the kind of spaces most people want to inhabit on a regular basis.
Guess where people do want to hang out: TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube—heavily moderated lily-white platforms with feeds operated by algorithms that work hard to figure out what you do and don’t want to see.
“Broadly, I think people want stuff censored and they’re happy that it is,” said David Brody, managing attorney of the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The problem is there are a lot of things that cut close to our political and social cleavages. That’s where it gets complicated.”
The only question really is where we should draw the line. At the extremes, most people are on the same page. I don’t know anyone who thinks you should be able to recruit terrorists on Facebook or publish sexually explicit material in the kids’ section of YouTube. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m sure we can all agree that you should be able to say whatever you want about taxes on Reddit, political or otherwise.
In the middle things get a lot more complicated. Should you be allowed to post lies about the COVID-19 vaccine on social media? A lot of people say yes, and a lot of people say no. One thing is for sure, that’s a decision that people like Mark Zuckerberg wish they didn’t have to make. In 2019, Zuckerberg said, “I believe people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.” One good reason for him to believe that is that being an arbiter of truth isn’t great for his business.
Meta, Google, and Twitter are big multinational corporations. If there’s one thing big corporations hate, it’s controversy about their business practices. These giant tech platforms would much rather that every person in America was a happy, engaged member of their communities. The tech industry really does not want to be making decisions that are going to infuriate millions of people.
Yet all of the big technology platforms engage in some form of censorship. Why? Because that’s what their users and their advertisers want. It’s what a profit-based model demands.
Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was dragged kicking and screaming into heavier content moderation on his platform. After years of arguments about how free speech is the most important ideal to uphold on Twitter, Dorsey was forced to abandon the mostly hands-off approach as harassment, misinformation, and hate speech on the platform boiled over. Twitter took steps to banish the Nazis and lead-poisoned QAnon supporters that flourished on the app, and it was ultimately the first to ban Donald Trump for his support of the insurrection on January 6th. Recently, Dorsey said that he’s changed his mind again, arguing that his content moderation efforts were a well-intentioned mistake.
All the sleepless nights that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and now Elon Musk spent worrying about these issues show you just how difficult the problem is. But one thing is clear: no reasonable person actually believes there should be no censorship, and most of us gleefully call for it on one occasion or another.
There are lots and lots of exceptions to the First Amendment, but in general, it gives you the freedom to say what you want about almost anything, without interference from the government. That’s how Americans seem to like it. But on the internet, those rules don’t apply, and that’s the way it should be. If you start spouting off hate speech in the comments of this article, we’re going to block you. Don’t like it? Go start your own website, because that’s how everybody wants it here.
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