Perils of Social Media and Free Speech
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
With the suspension of President Donald Trump’s accounts on Twitter and Facebook, much focus is now on Big Tech and censorship. This may be a good thing, as there has been a huge elephant in the Tech room for a long time. How much control should the private sector have on public speech?
At first, this is a simple question to answer. These are private, publicly-traded companies. They are not bound by the First Amendment. That is true, so I can stop this article now.
To think this way makes sense. If a guy comes to your coffee shop shirtless so that he can show off his, “Camp Auschwitz” tattoo, you can throw him out on his ear. Not only is such highly offensive to many, but he will surely hurt your business — since you live near a Jewish community. Do you want to be forced to allow him to sit there sipping his brew?
However, here is the problem. Since President Trump lost his accounts, his megaphone, there is incredible silence. In fact, things almost feel, well, normal. That is scary. Things have not been normal for 4 years, or, as I am not a fan of the word “normal,” things seem calm. Let’s, though, think of this another way.
President Trump has immense power. He is not only the President of the most powerful nation in the world (not so sure now), but he has proven time and time again to be above any institution of law. Yet, this seems a major blow to him. Could it be that Big Tech can silence the most powerful man in the world? They can by simply clicking a button.
That should scare all of us. In the short term, this makes sense. What happened at the Capital was appalling, but that has nothing to do with free speech. Chanting, “Hang Mike Pence” is not free speech. It is an ordered execution by a mob of angry and misleads people. People that bought “news” that is not real news. These companies, including Parler, deliberately misled so many and gave more dangerous fringes “firepower” and hope. The role of social media and fake news or propaganda is what we should be discussing. There is free speech and then there is propaganda (fake news). There is a difference.
Before looking at this issue more in-depth, the problem is that our nation will do what it always does. It will target the little guy, the angry man busting the Capital door down, or the young former Navy woman that lost her life disobeying the police, but the uncomfortable truth is that most of these people really believe in their hearts that the election was overthrown. They are willing to pay with their lives. After all, somewhere in some document is says that if our Nation becomes a tyranny people have the right to pick up arms and overthrow the government! If you paid attention in history class, you know what document I mean.
This does not justify what happened at the Capital. But I point it out because we will go after the symptom or result, not the cause: powerful companies and individuals that knowingly enticed and incited mostly poor and disadvantaged people, manipulated them, to make a profit and spread political influence. You can be sure, not a single one will be brought to justice. At best, only one will be made an example, the least powerful of the powerful. That is not free speech, and that is not democratic.
Here is what we need to consider:
Social Media is Our Megaphone
In short, if a company is a social media platform, it should abide by the First Amendment because this is how people communicate. It may be a “private” social media platform, but they don’t own us or our words. If a company helps us get the word out, influences our communication, and plays a role in our society as communication tools, then the users need to be protected by the First Amendment. These, by in large, are huge companies. They have an unfair advantage over an individual. If they can snuff out the President of the United States, they can snuff out anyone. That is dangerous. Having an “unhinged” President has less to do with free speech and more to do with the lack of qualifying rigor for the position. It is tougher to become a social worker or school bus driver than it is the President of the United States. The one qualification: you need to be loaded with cash.
So, if you are the owner of that coffee shop, no worries. You get to throw that guy out. Even if he argues that his tattoo is artistic, coffee shops are not in the communications business. However, if I walk into your coffee shop and you say, “Hey, you’re that guy that writes about pedos, get out of my shop,” then you have a big problem. You identified me; you called me out, and you threw me out based on my professional work as a therapist, artist, and journalist. That is not okay. You violated, not my speech so much, but my person. With that said, if I am talking loudly and my conversation is making others uncomfortable, it is understandable that you have a right to tell me to quiet down or leave. It’s not my speech or content as much as it is me being inconsiderate of others. That is still a grey area and needs to be up to the owner, but I think we all see the contrast here: one is being openly offensive, another is being called out, and one is being warned to talk more quietly, not to shut up. That is the difference.
Artists and Professionals Have No Protection
As an artist and a social worker that focuses on sexuality, I am often targeted and censored. I have little to no power or ability to protect myself against Google, Medium, Pinterest, Facebook, or Twitter. My article “Death of the Artistic Girl’ was targeted by Google. They pulled off ads, attempting to punish the Baltimore Post-Examiner. Since when did Google become the experts in my areas of study? As one that has had my share of suspended accounts, I get the usual sweeping violation: I violated community standards. If I ask, “What does that mean?” I never get an answer. Such is left up to a robot and then a person that has some knowledge of IT or a degree in it, but do they have three masters’ degrees, a Ph.D., and a license in the areas I address? Of course not, so the blind censor the seeing. That is a very bad idea.
For President Trump, Twitter put out a specific answer: he was inciting violence against his own government. Twitter was brutally specific, so much so that they put themselves on the line. They knew their platform has and was contributing to misinformation and encouraging dangerous uprisings. They refused for years to take meaningful action implying that “free speech” is important, just like Medium and others say, but then pull the rug out from under Trump when the damage has already been done. Twitter is a major player in what occurred at the Capital. I am sure any criminal investigator could tie them to it. But they are rich, so they will get away with it. If anything, they will get fined some couch-cushion change.
But artists like me have no protection. I am totally dependent on Big Tech. If they delete me, they delete my life. Where else can I write and connect to others? I don’t have a horse or a speakerphone. We have moved away from the nineteenth century. In fairness, book publishers are private companies, but they have a history of protecting art, yet we often see little to no value in art. Our people are not taught about it in any meaningful way, as they are in Russia, France, and many other countries. Often, the reaction to a story or painting or video is purely emotional, and the notion that anything with any hint of the sexual in it is pornographic. That is just not true. Art is filled with this stuff. You have to know how to read art. It takes time, pain, and then the bliss comes. Art, a good book, is not hate speech or trash. You may not like Nabokov’s Lolita, but it is a masterpiece.
Amazon has so much power over publishers and artists, that it can snap its fingers and make an artist go away. That is not acceptable, and Amazon needs to be held accountable. All these companies are really monopolies. Microsoft may have been split up, but 80% of all the computers on the planet run on Windows. If that is not an unfair monopoly, nothing is.
Artists in the U.S. are treated awfully. We have no rights, and we are often exploited. I have only made enough money to buy a couple of cups of coffee, but I get death threats.
Professionals in other areas are often banned by Facebook and Twitter. I often see licensed professionals get suspended because Twitter, for example, aligns its Terms of Service to advocacy groups that focus more on emotion than science. The result is that those offering support services to severely marginalized groups are constantly harassed by Twitter and its members and suspended. Unless you know someone on Twitter, you won’t get your account back. Yet, Twitter and other platforms have no problem leaving dangerous people online that they know are dangerous because those people have influence. Suspend licensed professionals; leave the mobsters or enticers alone.
As I stated in my past articles, children are often abused by these companies, having their channels taken down because they do a split, their feet show, or some person flags them, bullies them, and they lose years of content with no explanation whatsoever! They often, Facebook and YouTube, use a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” approach. Such idiotic mechanisms can have severe consequences on individuals, especially kids. You cannot take the kids off YouTube or social media. They inhabit the same planet. The alternatives are non-existent or awful. For those that do exist, I think, they are harmful to kids’ development. Kids’ YouTube is by far the worst app I have ever seen. If you want to know what living in a prison feels like, get Kids YouTube, where everyone is treated like a sex offender, including your kid.
In closing, the problem with these Tech companies is two-fold: they are too big for their own good, and the focus is only on profit. They are known to exploit kids and, in general, their users. They are too big to manage well. Medium pulled my one poem. I was notified by the “Family Safety Committee” or something like that. I cannot be a man and write artistically about liking girlhood in art. It hits too close to home for many. Exactly, that is art, and it was done tastefully. The “Family Safety Committee” responds to emotion. Medium is well known to love the F-bomb, brutal unchecked bullying, and they often include sexually explicit pornographic writing. I guess kids don’t need that protection?
If we only let artists perform or write “fruit in a bowl,” then haven’t we become North Korea?
Let’s be honest, most platforms use TOS to go after people they don’t like. The whole process is unfair to the one generating the content. Experts are being judged by non-experts, and there is no fair process, no due process that is known to those suspended.
If your business is in communication or speech, then the First Amendment is your business. This would not keep President Trump’s account up because he incites violence and hate. But if a writer is writing about a white supremacist, why should her book get banned? There may be much useful information in it. There is a big difference. I may write about children and sexuality, but I am not advocating for sexually abusing kids. There is a difference that is clear to the experts among us and those that appreciate and understand the need to address difficult topics. These platforms have no idea and often allow clans of bullies or people with their own agendas to target others.
It’s time private communication companies adhere to the First Amendment, but we need to make better distinctions between propaganda, manipulation, and free speech.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. He is currently in the later stages of his MFA program at Concordia University-St. Paul, where he is studying and writing about Anne Frank. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues.