The Complicated Question of Free Speech on Social Media


Twitter has come under fire for censorship since it announced its new Trust & Safety Council last month. For those familiar with George Orwell's 1984, the name of this committee may call to mind the prescient novel's Ministry of Truth, which in the book was charged with rewriting history to best serve the government's interests. Twitter's Trust & Safety Council was created, according to the company, "to ensure people can continue to express themselves freely and safely on Twitter." Members of the council include organizations such as Anti-Bullying Pro and Feminist Frequency. The values of these organizations align with my personal values, and it has to be said that the council has a clear liberal slant.

I learned years ago that I learn the most from people who are not like me; they push my buttons, but they also force my mind open while at the same time making me sharpen my words and the opinions behind them. As an example from years ago, after seeing Ann Coulter as a regular panelist on Bill Maher's television shows years ago, I signed up to receive her newsletters to learn how she argued her opinions. Shortly thereafter, she sent a Thanksgiving newsletter arguing why Muslims are not welcome in this country and why they should be forced out. This was sometime during the George W. Bush administration, and the first real anti-Muslim sentiment I had ever read, and I immediately unsubscribed, disturbed by Coulter's words and ashamed of myself for having been curious to learn more about her. I had hoped that part of her public persona was an act, as she often laughs at the preposterousness of her own arguments while making them. I thought she might have greater nuance, but it turned out she doesn't; the lesson, then, was that vitriol and hatred toward people of different cultures is real and a potential threat in this country.

Today, I'm convinced that electing a black President of the United States has had the effect of baiting hatred, drawing hidden and quiet bigots out of their hiding places and into the streets for rallies. Donald Trump of course has appealed to these people, evidently gambling his campaign on his hope that there are more bigoted, prejudiced, misogynistic and xenophobic American voters who are hungry for violence than progressive, accepting peace-loving ones. Bernie Sanders is betting on the opposite. Hillary Clinton's seemingly safer bet is rooted in political tradition: turn public poll results into personal talking points--if the majority is against same-sex marriage, then so am I; if the majority is for it, then the time has come to support it.

Which brings us back to social media. In a Politico op-ed called "How Social Media is Ruining Politics," Nicholas Carr writes that "if Sanders is a king [of social media], Trump is a god. A natural-born troll, adept at issuing inflammatory bulletins at opportune moments, he's the first candidate optimized for the Google News algorithm."

The prospect of Donald Trump as the leader of this country terrifies me. It's enough to make me read some of his supporters' words to understand where they are coming from--because I don't want to be blindsided should this nation elect someone who has effectively promised to award himself the powers of a dictator should he land in the White House (which I'd expect him to have plated with 24-karat gold).

One of Trump's most unabashed supporters is Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer for ultra-conservative outlet Breitbart, who is a living contradiction in terms: he's flamboyantly, proudly gay but has said if he weren't, he would be a great homophobe. He's British, but writes and speaks primarily about U.S. politics, cartoonishly supporting Donald Trump, whom he calls "Daddy." Many of his tweets would challenge even Coulter not to blush -- particularly those he deems anti-feminist -- but in interviews supports social and political equality of the sexes and clarifies that his resentment is against what he believes to be a certain type of new-wave, man-hating feminist common to the Millennial generation. Yiannopoulos calls himself "the most fabulous supervillain on the Internet," and once I began to follow him with disdain I quickly realized he is mostly in on the ridiculousness of his public persona, a kind of living performance art made to challenge those on both the left and the right who believe their chosen side is the correct one, usually without thinking at all about what their side represents. He is, it turns out, what I wrongly suspected years ago Coulter might be: consciously or unconsciously subversive and self-contradictory. I don't agree with most of what he writes, but a growing number of people do and that makes him worth following; I do appreciate his challenging, however confused and confusing, of pre-programmed political beliefs.

Despite Twitter's conspicuous political bias, users still have the freedom to terrify.

Yiannopoulos resents the suggestion that all women are vulnerable to violence from men, and often alleges that college sexual assault estimates are inflated. He resents what one might call victim culture; yet, at the same time, he appears to feel genuinely victimized by Twitter and its Trust & Safety Council. Once upon a time, Yiannopoulos was awarded -- through its subjective and opaque internal process -- a coveted blue check mark by Twitter: this "verified" status is given to select people of influence, not at their request but at Twitter's own silent discretion. And then just as unexpectedly as Yiannopoulos was given the blue check mark, he was unceremoniously stripped of it because his statements -- including, famously, a poll asking whether people would "rather your child have feminism or cancer" -- don't align with Twitter's values. Yiannopoulos since has begun bashing Twitter for victimizing him by taking away his blue checkmark; sometimes it feels as if his woe-is-me act is a hyperbolic joke (particularly when weighing its superficiality against a concern as potentially devastating as sexual assault), but there's no denying the man genuinely feels that his right to free speech has been violated by Twitter.

While in Washington, D.C. for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Yiannopoulos was admitted to a White House press briefing and then called on by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, whom he asked "is there anything the president can do to encourage Silicon Valley, to remind them of the importance, the critical importance, of open free speech in our society?"

The whole setup is striking: a conservative opinion writer from the United Kingdom who supports Donald Trump -- a political candidate with fascist tendencies -- made an appeal to an American president who some conservatives believe is a too-authoritative "socialist" to exert influence, if not actual governmental control, over a private company's actions. Whether this was simply an attention-grabbing tactic by Yiannopoulos or a true appeal to federal powers, the reversal of roles -- a conservative asking a liberal to force a private company's hand -- is truly Orwellian, as it confuses widely accepted understanding of what "conservative" (limited government for the good of the people) and "liberal" (greater government authority for the good of the public) people believe they stand for. In a Newspeak world in which "truth" means "fiction, "peace" means "war" and "love" means "hate," it's impossible to discriminate the ideals of conservatives versus liberals.

Twitter, the company behind the tweets, for a long time felt invisible to me even while using the service: tweets flowed without any obvious editorial control. Recently, though, Twitter's wizard-behind-the-curtain has made itself known, for example, by pushing annoying weekly messages about The Bachelor to my phone. I've never watched The Bachelor, almost certainly never will, and the ABC network must have paid a small fortune to Twitter to violate my space with conspicuous promotions for a reality show that, frankly, still creeps me out after 20 seasons.

But Twitter is a private company and doesn't purport to be editorially journalistic, and so I don't expect unbiased governance and practices from it.

A greater concern to me is Facebook, which as a private company also can't be expected (or trusted) to be unbiased, but which also has inarguably committed unethical actions against its unwitting users, authorizing a social experiment in which its users' emotions were manipulated and documented without their consent.

Since that time, Facebook has installed a "trending" sidebar that can't be hidden or removed, and which alternatively places (sponsored?) news stories about Kardashians and Justin Bieber alongside often violent and tragic headlines that unquestionably affect Facebook users' moods.

Given its prior actions, we have no reason to believe given Facebook's prior human experimentation that these headlines, forced into our lines of vision, are not selectively placed to manipulate our hearts and minds. Twitter isn't innocent in this regard, either; it has been selectively "shadowbanning" certain account holders by stealthily and silently unfollowing certain users. I heard about this and then learned about it firsthand, as my account unfollowed Yiannopoulos's without my consent and without Twitter informing me. This is less egregious a violation than Facebook's mind control (Don't fool yourself into thinking that's not what it is.), but still an undeniably Orwellian act that presupposes it knows better about my own "trust and safety" than I do.

Yet, I can't allow myself to feel violated: if I found out my government did this to me, as a Trump government likely would, I would be running across the border for my life. I have every expectation that a privately held Internet technology company will exploit any and all resources -- including influencing my thoughts and behaviors when possible -- to drive its private agenda. Let's not fool ourselves any longer.

Thirty years ago, the Internet was a frontier that may have had as great an effect on open information dissemination as the invention of the printing press did in the middle ages. But over the decades, as the world has plugged in, companies have collected enough user data to learn how to drive our thoughts, feelings, and political opinions, and to believe in the unbiased nature of profit-driven social media companies is to give over willingly to propaganda. Orwell cautioned his readers about this wave of the future, but what he didn't foresee was that thoughtcrimes would be policed not only by governments, but by private corporations, and that these same companies would be charged with the curating of current-event narratives. We all understand that Rupert Murdoch's political and financial interests influence his news outlets' reporting, and learning not to rely on these news outlets for unbiased reporting took some time. It's time to catch up with reality and stop believing that what we see online is uncensored. The good news is that we can still seek out and multifaceted opinions and make our own informed decisions with information available to us on the Internet (for now); we just shouldn't expect any single social media outlet to carry out critical thinking for us.