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Social media and Our First Amendment: Censorship

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Social Media and Our First Amendment: Censorship

Today, the world has become a global village due to various social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and search engines such as Google. Through these platforms, friendships and relationships have been formed and businesses have thrived. Social media was initially popular among young people but today, it has encompassed even the old as it has developed features to suit each age group as well as socio-economic status groups. Thus, many people spend a lot of time on these platforms either socializing or doing business and sometimes, even learning (Dencik& Leistert, 2015). Just like any society, social media groups have all kinds of people and as a result, there has been the need to introduce certain policies of governance and codes of conduct.

Censorship Policies

Given that there are people from all walks of life on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, YouTube and other social media platforms, there are some who do not have good intentions with what they share online. The fact that social media gives a level of anonymity, some of these individuals are keen on spewing hate, obscenities, and other forms of negativity on social media. As a result, the ones on the receiving end may feel violated, harassed, and attacked. Therefore, these censorship policies are partly vital.

First, social media platforms are ran by private corporations. Apart from making profits, these corporations have personal interests, which can cause a conflict with principles such as freedom of speech. On one hand, censorship is important in protecting honest social media users from exploiters and malicious individuals who are keen on spreading hate. On the other hand, there is a lot of bias especially in trending topics as these corporations are determined to move conversations in the direction that favors them in the long run. Current events reported on social media are in most cases driven to create certain reaction from its users. During the presidential campaign period in 2016, a video of some Google executives declaring their support for Trump surfaced on the internet and even though Google vehemently denied the political partiality of their executives, these corporations forms a huge monopoly. Recent reports indicate that the Google search engine among other popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube have been given the mandate to manipulate online conversations that are of interest such as political conversations (Byström & Soda, 2017). Therefore, this explains why these platforms have embraced the censorship policies.  

In Germany for instance, the censorship debate on social media platforms has begun. Initially, it aims to curb hate speech by involving the authorities. In the recent times, the Chechen warlord monger, Ramzan Kadyrov was indefinitely banned from Facebook and Instagram. He was notorious for posting videos of his work out that were patriotic declarations and caused a lot of tension among his followers. Once the U.S government included him in the sanction list, he was banned from Facebook and Instagram right away. Thus, this has caused uproar even as these two social media corporations tried to justify their reason for deleting his accounts.

The censorship laws are rumored to get more stringent with time and here are more high-profiled interests that social media corporations are operating under. Washington DC is already calling for expansion of these censorships and it is likely that there are individuals who will have their social media accounts deleted permanently for becoming toxic. If these censorships continues, social media will lose its initial authenticity and purpose, which was giving people the freedom of speech. Therefore, the platforms are likely to lose their meaning and popularity.

The Reno v. ACLU Landmark Case

There pertinent questions that most Americans are asking with all these censorship policies in place, that include, “does the Reno v. ACLU case affect free speech on social media platforms?” The Communications Decency Act of 1996, also known as Act or CDA, aims to ensure that minors are protected from explicit and harmful content on internet platforms. The cyberspace is clearly laden with all manner of information and users. This information, some of which is explicit, can be easily accessed even by the wrong group such as minors and that is where the CDA intervenes. Title 47 U. S. C. A. §223(a) (1) (B) (ii) (Supp. 1997) dictates that intentional sharing of indecent information or texts to minors is a crime. Furthermore, Section 223(d) criminalizes any form of knowingly sharing information or images that are offensive or of obscene content. While obscene content is relatively measured based on the ideal community standards, material such as pornography, nudity and any other form of sexual content has been criminalized under this law. Therefore, this explains why some social media platforms will only register users who have attained a legal age.

The First Amendment of the U.S constitution addresses speech in relation to online platform interactions. The Reno v. ACLU was a landmark case in 1996. In a unanimous verdict in the Supreme Court, it was categorically determined that the First Amendment was to be adjusted to include written, spoken or visual material shared on the online platforms. This of course has stirred confusion especially for social psychologists that have been tasked with the responsibility to determine and prove worthy or unworthy Facebook status updates, tweets, video clips and other categories of online content. Thus, censorship can only work in a society that shares the same ideals and community standards or same opinion on what is lewd content and the one that is not.

The Dangers of Censorship Policies and Algorithm Bias on Facebook

Today, social media platforms have connected the whole world. By December of 2017, a third of the total human population in the world used or owned a social media account (Dencik & In Leistert, 2015). This number has since increase day by day. One of the reasons why most people initially joined social media is not only to enjoy virtual interactions, but also have freedom of speech, albeit anonymously, in some instances. However, things have changed with all these censorship policies in place. While they have played a vital role in warding off hate mongers and online bullying, they have also censored vital elements of speech. Facebook, for instance, a platform that has the majority of social media users, and which are estimated to be around 65 per cent of the online community, has been on the fore front with the stringent censorship policies. The U.S and the U.K has been most hit in these Facebook censorship policies, as half of its populations not only own accounts, but are also ardent Facebook users. When asked to define hate speech according to Facebook community standards earlier on in April, Zuckerberg admitted that hate speech was an ambiguous definition and said that it was one of the challenges they face at Facebook as they try to regulate speech on the platform. Thus, this goes to show that part of the ongoing censorship policies will only create more confusion for the users.

In recent times, Facebook has also introduced algorithms. In this case, they listen in to the conversations of their users and use this information to create data for marketing purposes. This is not only discriminatory and bias, but it is also an infringement of the rights and privacy of its users. It is clear that Facebook just like all other popular social media platforms are profiting from the network. There are two categories of Facebook users, the sellers and the target customers. Facebook is not only a network for social interactions; it is also a business platform or an advertising agency. In a congressional hearing in April 2018, Zuckerberg admitted, “Mr. Senator, we sell ads on Facebook.” Therefore, this goes to prove the monopoly argument when it comes to social media and especially, popular platforms such as facebook.

Bizarre Examples of “Censorship” Caused by Human or Algorithms Errors

Social media censorship policies come in many forms. These forms may include infringed freedom of expression, restriction of certain information, inability to access certain sites, restricting online anonymity or shutting down online platforms in general, like some parts of Asia. In china, for instance, one of their most popular social media platform, Weibo, which is the equivalent of Twitter was censored from posting interactive stickers (emojis) and Disney's popular show, Winnie the Pooh. This censor came after most users used these character and emojis to create memes that were believed to mock president Xi Jinping. Before the censorship, these memes went viral and compared the president to Winnie the Pooh after he answered a courtesy call from Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan. In 2012, a country in central Asia banned Wikipedia from using its Uzbekistan language (Simon, 2015).  As a result, they felt that it would successfully “protect” its citizens from being fed with misinformation and explicit content.

In July 2018, Facebook marked a post about declaration of independence as hate speech. Later they apologized for removing the post. The post featured section 27-31 of the independence declaration. Once it was posted, the managing director of Vindicator received a warning notice from Facebook to take the post down as it had apparently violated the hate speech standards on Facebook. A photo of Santa Clause kneeling in front of an image of Jesus was also barred on Facebook. While it was not taken down, viewers' discretion was advised. Facebook gives such treatment to “graphic” and “violent” images. When asked about this particular censorship, Facebook argued that the image would upset sensitive groups (Simon, 2015). It is, therefore, difficult to determine what content Facebook views safe for all and what they deem as explicit.   

Recently, both Facebook and Google pulled down the video “Creepy Line” by Peter Schweizer. The video was also barred on YouTube on claims that it the video promotes violence and it would be misconstrued by young people. Therefore, the question then arises, “does the censorship on social media platforms an anti-capitalist bias or a genuine algorithm protecting minors from explicit content and violence?” To answer this, there is a need to understand that popular online platforms such as Facebook and Google have been accorded too much power by regulators of online platforms. Thus, in the coming days, it is likely that these social media corporation giants are going to exploit these powers.

In the recent past, it has become difficult to keep track of the number of posts that have been flagged down by Facebook for what they deem as explicit content. Its fact-check partners are no better and for the past two years, users have experienced a culture shock regarding what Facebook community standards term as explicit or hate speech (Simon, 2015). This can only work against Facebook in the end. Users will look for other platforms with lesser restrictions, or quit social media in general. False flags have definitely started to reduce the amount of Facebook traffic by close to 40 percent already. Therefore, Zuckerberg will need to draw the lines that will establish what exactly qualifies to be flagged down and return the freedom of speech on Facebook before it is too late.

Shadow Banning for Republicans and Conservatives

Shadow banning is a social media phrase that can be used to describe the act of temporary blocking a user from viewing content posted. On Facebook, features such as “unfollow”, “snooze” and “block” are prime examples of shadow burning. Once a user is shadow banned, they cannot access posts made by the user on the other end. It is also known as ghost banning. This feature has become quite popular on social media platforms. Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter have been on the receiving end when it comes to backlash on abusing the censorship policy powers. Conservatives have claimed that these social media platforms have suppressed their freedom of expression online. As a result, Facebook has introduced the shadow ban. This way, users can shadow ban content or users they find offensive.  

President Trump has given his take on shadow banning on Twitter. As an ardent Twitter user, Trump feels that Twitter has been secretly blocking some Republican users. He feels that this move is biased and aims to hush Republicans from sharing their opinions online by blocking their autofill search results. These comments came in after a video by James O'Keefe resurfaced detailing that Twitter has been removing or blocking certain users such as Ronna McDaniel the Republican Party chairman. Therefore, the only way Twitter can address these allegations is by introducing shadow banning for its users like Facebook.

The Federal Election Commission

The biggest question being asked by social media users who have experience censorship is, “will the Federal Election Commission intervene on these censorships and restrictions that have been going on social media networks?” Social media users are hoping that the Censorship Act will primarily fix the suppression going on Twitter. Johhny Rye, who introduced the Act to stop the ongoing social media stringent policies, is giving hope to social media users and stakeholders. He promises solutions that will strike a balance between social media and its users as well as maintain ideal community standards that will not infringe on the rights of any group (Simon, 2017). Rye filed this bill after uproar from different groups of online community and he assures social media platform users that at the end of this debate, the delete or censor measures that social media corporations have been exercising will be regulated.

The question, however, is if the bill will allow for compensations for damages caused to businesses due to censorship policies in the past two years. If the bill goes through, the plaintiffs will be compensated a minimum of $75,000, for each business post that was wrongful deleted or flagged down by social media corporations (Simon, 2015).  Actual and punitive damages will also be applied to the corporations if found guilty of unnecessary flagging and censorship. However, these charges will not apply to small social media platforms but giant corporations such as, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Supreme Court Verdict and Class Action

If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case against social media corporations and the ongoing censorship policies, it will definitely outline the First Amendment Act on what can be defined as obscene content and the limits of free speech.  The distinction between genuine protection and selfish interest has been blurred over the years by the social media giants. Their monopoly aspects have ensured that the platforms only share news and content that is convenient for these corporations. However, the Supreme Court will have a hard time distinguishing actual obscene content and free speech.

The Supreme Court will hear the “Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, No. 17-702” case that will focus on whether social media platforms and mainstream media can act on behalf of the state in determining what the general public can consume in terms of content. The First Amendment Act and the Sherman Antitrust Act are clear on the violations of rights by the media corporations. Once the Supreme Court gives its verdict, there could be broader implications than expected. Thus, the verdict of this case could put the big social media corporations through class action lawsuits based on the First Amendment and the Sherman Antitrust Acts.

Conclusion

The social media giants have clearly abused their powers and privileges on censorship stringent measures. Facebook has been particularly notorious for flagging down content without proper examination to determine if it indeed violates its community standard ethics. On the other hand, Twitter has been silently blocking certain political groups from expressing their views to their followers. YouTube and Google have also been taking down content that is clearly not harmful to the general public. What started off as genuine algorithm censorship against cyber bullying and explicit content has turned out to be a manipulation against the online community. The pertinent question remains “why?” Well, for starters, these social media giants have turned the platforms into a business and advertising space, not only for businesses but also political groups. Therefore, they have evolved into biased corporations that protect the interest of those they deem fit. The Rye bill will hopefully bring sanity on social media and the plaintiffs will be compensated heavily for the losses and damages incurred in the course of wrongful censorship and flagging. Otherwise, the giant corporations risk not only a class action suit, but also turning away potential businesses and new subscribers. Thus, the Rye bill must find a balance that will serve justice to both the social media corporations and the plaintiffs.

References

Byström, A., & Soda, M. (2017). Pics or it didn't happen: Images Banned from Instagram.

Dencik, L., & In Leistert, O. (2015). Critical perspectives on social media and protest: Between control and emancipation.

Simon, J. (2015). The new censorship: Inside the global battle for media freedom.

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