Why the threat to free speech suddenly looks much bigger

By: Adam Johnston

What do Donald Trump winning the presidency in 2016, the Capitol Protests on January 6, and Joe Biden missing his July 4th Covid-19 vaccination target all have in common? According to many of today’s left-wing politicians and media pundits, Facebook, and social media in general, are partially to blame for all three. Google “Democrats blame Facebook,” and you’ll see what I mean.

On the other end of the spectrum, Republicans blame social media for censoring their ideas due to a perceived anti-conservative bias. Unfortunately, banning former President Trump from all social media didn’t help alleviate those concerns. Many Americans no doubt long for simpler days where people logged onto Facebook to find old friends and play FarmVille and Mafia Wars, but I digress.

Both left and right agree on one thing, however. Social media is a significant battleground in shaping America’s political landscape. Seventy-two percent of US citizens of voting age actively use some form of social media, while 69 percent of Americans in the same group use Facebook alone, according to data from Socialbakers. Overall, 82 percent of the population in the United States had a social networking profile, which translates into 223 million US social media users as of 2020.

There is no question that social media companies and their platforms wield incredible power and influence, especially in journalism and the media. Back at the beginning of the pandemic, The New York Post ran an op-ed suggesting that the coronavirus might have leaked from a lab. Facebook stepped in and claimed that this opinion was “false information.”

Social media is incredibly effective in amplifying individual voices and helping to coordinate collective action. This is why totalitarian governments such as China severely restrict social media and the internet.

Over a year later, Facebook decided that the lab leak hypothesis isn’t conspiratorial and will allow stories and opinions on that subject to be shared.

The New York Post also published a story about Hunter Biden’s emails before the last election. In response, Twitter and Facebook both limited the story’s reach and ultimately locked the NY Post Twitter account for about two weeks before reversing its decision. The New York Post is not some no-name conspiratorial blog. The paper was started in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton and has more than 2.2 million Twitter followers and more than 4.4 million Facebook followers.

Later in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing regarding censorship and suppression on social media during the 2020 election, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that the censoring of the Hunter Biden story was a mistake.

In both instances, social media companies took it upon themselves to be the arbiters of truth, and in both cases, their decisions proved to be wrong.

Social media is also incredibly effective in amplifying individual voices and helping to coordinate collective action. This is why totalitarian governments such as China severely restrict social media and the internet. It’s also why Cuba completely shut off the internet in response to anti-government protests.

But that could never happen here in the United States, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that an American tech company could consider censorship as a good business model, whether for profit or self-preservation. One prime example of this comes from Google and the development of their heavily censored Chinese search engine dubbed “Project Dragonfly.” After The Intercept broke the story, Google eventually canceled it due to extensive pressure from employees and even Congress.

There are calls for Big Tech and Big Government to work even more closely.

The NSA wants Big Tech to build “back doors” into the encryption technology used by various tech firms. Others are openly praising China’s censorship of the internet, stating that the West’s model of free speech is obsolete compared to China’s.

When governments and private businesses begin to act in concert and move in lockstep, we risk bringing George Orwell’s 1984 into reality. There’s a name for this, a term we’ve heard screamed from the rooftops throughout Donald Trump’s tenure in politics.

While private companies should be free to enforce their terms of service, it would appear that they are being coerced and pressured to bend to the government’s will.

Fascism.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s hear from Benito Mussolini himself, who stated the following in his Labour Charter of 1927:

“The intervention of the state in economic production takes place only when private initiative is lacking or is insufficient or when political interests of the state are involved. Such intervention may assume the form of control, assistance, or direct management.” (emphasis added.)

Many people in government today, on both sides of the political aisle, feel that the state’s political interests are most definitely at stake when talking about social media. President Trump recently sued Big Tech, claiming that his removal from social media platforms amounted to “state action.”

Meanwhile the White House made the startling admission that they are “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation”—Biden claims Facebook is outright “killing people,”—and have identified “about 12 people that are producing 65% of anti-vaccine information” on Facebook.

Let me reiterate that point. The government has identified 12 individuals who they deem problematic and have reported them to a private company for speech they have classified as “misinformation.”

This comes on the heels of Facebook testing new “Anti-Extremism” warning prompts, informing users that they may have been exposed to “extremist” content while also asking users if they are worried about a friend who may be becoming an extremist. It’s not a coincidence that these pop-up warnings come after Biden’s attorney general testified that “White supremacists are the most serious domestic terror threat facing the United States.”

As individuals, we have to decouple ourselves from the centralized nature of social media and begin to move back to a decentralized model.

Beyond that, the Biden Administration is considering partnering with private firms to monitor “extremist chatter” online. The definition of “extremism,” and who gets to define it, is a question that should concern everyone.

While private companies should be free to enforce their terms of service, it would appear that they are being coerced and pressured to bend to the government’s will. There is still a wall, however fragile, between Big Tech and US Intelligence agencies. Free speech as we know it depends on that wall holding.

So what are some answers? First, let me identify what I do not see as solutions.

  1. I do not favor the government further regulating social media or Big Tech in general. Increased regulation tends to stifle competition and entrench larger company’s positions in the marketplace.
  2. I’m also not advocating for a “fairness doctrine” like the one introduced by the FCC in 1949 and eliminated in 1987.

On the social media front, the answer to this problem should not come from government legislation or regulation but rather from creating both a free market and free speech environment that fosters competition and lowers barriers to entry; however, that won’t be enough.

As individuals, we have to decouple ourselves from the centralized nature of social media and begin to move back to a decentralized model, similar to what the internet looked like at its inception.

The internet of the past was primarily individual websites, or blogs, unshackled from the constraints of social media. We are so used to logging into Facebook as a one-stop-shop for our content or searching for an app in Apple or Google’s App stores that we forget we still have a web browser on our phone.

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments.

Companies like Substack are also popping up for independent writers and journalists to publish their content and get paid for it (outside of the censoring eye of social networks). And then, there are protocols like LBRY, a blockchain-based file-sharing and payment network that powers decentralized platforms, primarily social networks and video platforms. LBRY’s creators also run Odysee, a video-sharing website that uses the network.

While the content on Odysee is moderated to remove videos that promote violence and terrorism, it is a model for what a “decentralized” internet could look like.

The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. As we have learned, private companies are under no such obligation. However, they can (and should) play an essential role in creating a culture that reinvigorates the spirit behind the First Amendment.

James Madison’s original First Amendment draft, which overall was much more descriptive than the one that ended up in the Bill of Rights, gives a little more insight into what he was thinking on this subject. It reads in part:

“The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments…”

Doesn’t that sound like a modern-day Facebook post?

The digital newsfeed has replaced the public square, and Big Tech, whether they like it or not, has a responsibility to help to facilitate the free exchange of ideas.

It’s also worth noting that in both the original and final versions of the First Amendment, there’s no qualifier excluding “misinformation.” The founders understood that unpopular opinion and information was the most important kind of speech in need of protection. So much so that many wrote under pseudonyms for their safety.

The digital newsfeed has replaced the public square, and Big Tech, whether they like it or not, has a responsibility to help to facilitate the free exchange of ideas.

In the final analysis, American social media companies base their entire business model around monetizing individual self-expression. They can and should serve as champions of free speech, especially when confronted with government pressure.

Adam Johnston

Adam Johnston

Adam Johnston is a libertarian-conservative writer and contributor to freethepeople.org (@FreeThePeople)

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

 

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