I slammed my laptop shut and balked at the news. YouTube had de-platformed crucial channels for my academic study. Just like that, the data I needed went ‘poof’ into the air. What was I going to tell my statistician? She was going to be livid.
The United States of America is founded upon our ability to share ideas, which is why the U.S. Constitution prohibits the national government from limiting free speech.
In the same breath, what happens to our right of expression if it’s not the national government imposing censorship, but powerful social media organizations with affinities for certain political narratives?
As an academic researcher with a degree in journalism and over 10 years of traversing this crazy online world filled with a litany of colliding perspectives, I will tell you the five most important things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Social Media Is the New Public Arena for Civil Discourse
Civilizations are founded on civil discourse so people can discuss values, reach common understandings, and evolve as societies.
Civilizations are founded on civil discourse.
The internet propelled us from traditional news sources into the realm of “new media.” Anyone could say anything with the mysterious potential of being able to go instantaneously viral.
Politicians jumped aboard this opportunity to rally support from interest groups and to garner media attention about policy agendas. Most importantly, they weren’t the only ones jumping on the train to have their voices heard.
2. The Power Centralized within Social Media Has Political Implications
Internet culture exploded as people from all generations rode the wave into a brand new zeitgeist, adopting memes and consuming viral internet sensations with fervor. Online users were faced with deciphering what was real in the chaos.
Users began expressing concern over privately-owned social media platforms holding power through algorithms, censorship, and community standards to affect the general public’s access to all sides of an issue.
3. Citizen Journalism Provided a New Way To Champion Human Rights
Out of the chaos, a new path was formed. With the ease of access to technology, citizen journalists began stepping forward as political activists. People from all over the world heeded the call to shift from content creation for entertainment value into a new level of responsibility to champion human rights.
People all over the world shifted from creating entertainment content to championing human rights.
Liberty advocates broke into discussions about current affairs, presenting facts to help the general public sift through the information presented by media organizations. Leveraging journalistic integrity and sound research, important layers of commentary were introduced into the political sector.
4. The Battle for Freedom of Speech on the Internet Has Reached the Federal Level
In 2019, the FBI published an official bulletin imploring social media companies to censor fringe political conspiracy theories that could cause incitement to violence. While speech encouraging violence is not protected by the Constitution, could we trust social media companies to effectively and honestly make these judgment calls? There’s a distinction between dangerous forms of expression and civil discourse protected by the Constitution.
YouTube (owned by Google) has deleted over a million channels in the last three years, some of which were classified by the mainstream media as conspiracy related. YouTube continues to de-platform the general public, and in many cases gives no other reason than stating the channel is against “community guidelines.” While it’s absolutely honorable to have and uphold community standards for content, the issues lie in the details.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protected internet free speech by ensuring that social media platforms weren’t held responsible for the information created and spread by the people who were using the platforms. This section has come under scrutiny with the recent U.S. presidential election and the power of “big tech” or social media companies to censor content and affect politics.
It made its way all the way to a Senate hearing on November 17, 2020, wherein the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, were in the hot seat to explain the matters of censorship on their platforms. On one side of the matter, corporate executives called it censorship to “limit the spread of misinformation” while individuals such as Sen. Marsha Blackburn, called it using “the power to silence conservatives.”
There is a distinction between dangerous forms of expression and civil discourse protected by the Constitution.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz put the pressure on Zuckerberg and Dorsey, standing out as a strong advocate for First Amendment rights in this country.
“Today was a rough day for big tech,” Cruz said in reference to the Senate hearings. “Between Facebook, Twitter, and then Google, which is really the 800-pound gorilla, we have enormous concentration of power. And I think they collectively pose the single greatest threat we have to free speech in this country.”
Whereas many are standing up for liberty, there’s an unfortunate perspective floating around. A new climate of fear has crept up on social media wherein people invite censorship of those whose words offend them. How can we regulate offense when it’s a subjective experience?
5. The United States Must Hold Firm to the Constitutional Standards Upon Which the Country Was Founded
Totalitarian governments are well aware that free speech is the first step to building and sustaining a democratic society. This is exactly why, throughout history, the ability to meet, confer, and share ideas is the first thing to be taken away. This is another reason why the United States was founded upon the principle of free speech.
Luckily, our federal system allows many avenues to secure liberty, life, and freedom. We see liberties enforced through judicial interpretations, legislature, policy, and reform.
The right to speak is an intrinsic human right.
As citizens, our most important asset is our voice. It’s not just a right given to us in the Constitution — the right to speak is an intrinsic human right. Because we’re humans and have the ability to reason with moral character, we’re more than capable to stand up for truth and liberty.
We must keep moving forward with integrity. We must lift each other up and encourage civil discourse, even if (and especially if!) the opinion differs from our own. Building a stable society is contingent upon our ability to share ideas and strengthen them through conversation.
Three Questions We Should Be Asking
These are the three main questions you should be asking about the intersection of free speech and social media censorship:
How can our voices be heard if the main platforms for engaging in civil discourse are silencing us?
Could social media organizations be imposing their political values upon their communities by mischaracterizing some forms of free expression as “hate speech” or as dangerous?
How can we decide for ourselves what information is valuable if social media organizations remove content?
After learning that a large chunk of YouTube channels had been deleted from my data set, I learned that some of the individuals actually filed a lawsuit against YouTube for violating their right to freedom of expression, referencing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Time will tell how judicial interpretation might come into play in this circumstance, possibly changing the political practice of censorship in the media. We also have some incredible representatives in this country who are fighting the good fight to keep our voices heard and our rights secured.
My whole intention with the academic study is to investigate what forms of media could actually be considered dangerous. At present, I’m watching it suffer because censorship is so rampant. At the same time, I’m almost glad this is happening because it’s making me put this entire issue under an even stronger microscope and forcing me to wake up and speak up louder.
How can we confirm or deny media claims when researchers such as myself no longer have access to data necessary to inform our scientific studies?
This is the scrubbing of free speech from the record. What will be left? Only the narrative that was imposed and blindly accepted? This potential is exactly why it’s paramount for us to step in, speak up, and use our voices. Truth will out.
Stay well. Stay vigilant. Stay strong.