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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Banning Trump from Facebook and Twitter and the dangers of censorship

Facebook and Twitter’s decision to ban President Trump from their online platforms has drawn both condemnation and appreciation from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

With social media platforms becoming increasingly important in our lives, the unprecedented ban must concern Americans across the political spectrum on the dangers of letting a few private entities effectively control who can and cannot communicate online. 

Many Republicans share the views of Sen. Ted Cruz on social media censorship, and they have a point.

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President Trump’s tweets promoting theories of election fraud were, perhaps justifiably, interpreted as promoting violence, as were his tweets on riots in Minneapolis. But, Iran’s Twitter campaign directly calling for the destruction of Israel, and Colin Kaepernick’s tweet justifying the violent riots all remain uncensored to this day. 

Richard Hanania, a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia university found that of the 22 notable accounts suspended by Twitter, 21 accounts had supported President Trump and only one of those accounts had supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to his credit, has time and again spoken about the importance of political inclusiveness and free speech, but the most popular social networking site too is plagued by claims of anti conservative bias. In a meeting with lawmakers, the CEO admitted that his company’s censoring a video of Live Action, a pro-life advocacy group, was biased.

Twitter censored a story on President-elect Joe Biden’s son just weeks before the election without explanation, but subsequently reversed its decision. 

It is not that conservatives approve of online bullying or calls for violence. They however disapprove of what they perceive as biased censorship. Marc Randazza, an attorney who has experimented on Twitter using decoy accounts notes that feminist handles often get away with abuse including violent threats while even slightly offensive messages coming from conservative voices are disciplined.

Silicon Valley is so overwhelmingly left leaning that any dissenting voices are heard only on Blind, an anonymous social media app exclusively for tech employees. Even if there is no systemic bias against conservative voices as the tech giants claim, content moderation by left leaning employees and artificial intelligence programs that have been trained to share the political leanings of their human creators, would inevitably result in unfair censorship. 

This is a matter of concern not just for Republicans, but for all Americans. If conservative voices can be stifled, so can the opinions of any other group.

To quote the American Civil Liberties Union, “We understand the desire to permanently suspend him [Trump] now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

Traditional First Amendment protected hotspots of free speech like street corners and parks have been replaced by social media, which are actively used by over 72% of Americans of voting age. A handful of unelected, unaccountable companies controlling the communications of millions of people puts us at a serious risk of virtually becoming an oligarchy. 

If Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms don’t live up to their promise of a neutral public forum, lawmakers, in the interests of preserving the democratic discourse of the country, must step in to regulate these platforms to ensure political inclusiveness.

• Ash Murthy is a Silicon Valley-based software engineer at a social networking company, and a freelance writer.


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