In the last week or so big tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have banned and removed President Trump’s accounts on the basis of violating their user policies. Such censorship has not occurred in these companies’ history and marks a real pivotal moment in the social media era in terms of which direction companies will go and what standards we hold them to.
There are many ways to look at the ban and its implications going forward. It is undoubtedly a complicated and multifaceted issue. In a previous letter we outlined the details of the legislation that governs tech companies as platforms vs. publishers... you can review that here. However, there were still many questions left unanswered. These are just some that we discussed in writing this letter and should be kept in mind as you read on…
Questions we asked:
If we don’t want to let a tech executive decide what we do or don’t see, who should monitor this? Or should it be monitored at all?
Where do we draw the line in terms of censorship vs citizen conduct? Hate Speech? Violence?
Is social media a utility (like a power company) and therefore governed differently than that of a regular business and subject to much stricter fair play laws?
Do we have adequate laws in place now so that prosecutors can bring charges and enforce the law in regard to online conduct?
Are the laws that protect citizens from discrimination by business adequate in regard to social media?
Does the enforcement of the banning of Trump set precedent which might ultimately fracture our society further in that groups with opposite views will be more likely to use different media platforms and never interact at all?
Social media was supposed to be non-biased since the information posted there was from the general population. By banning certain figures do we eliminate its inherent unbiased stance?
Are the laws of supply and demand economics enough to shape private business practices to conform with public will when deciding what is allowed to be published?
Is it the job of the government to provide legal protection to its citizens against first amendment violations by large tech companies?
Are public figures held to different standards of conduct online?
Terms and Agreements
Facebook, Twitter and others have cited user agreement violations as the reasoning behind their ban on President Trump. While his supporters say that this violates the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution, proponents of the ban say that his language and rhetoric is responsible for the violence and riot at the capitol a few weeks ago. While I think that President Trump’s language and speeches have done little to help the peaceful transition of power, I don’t know that I am entirely supportive of big tech banning users they disagree with. Now all of these companies have cited sections of their user agreements that note hate speech or inciting violence as a ban-able offense. This does seem reasonable, for example, you can’t go to a sporting event and start a fight and expect to be allowed to stay at the game… you have violated their spectator conduct code. The same type of agreement is exactly what tech companies make you sign when you start using their service. It is usually long, small print and boring and most of us scroll to the bottom as fast as we can and just click “agree.”
For those who support Trump and say that this has effectively silenced his message I would point out that at the time of his social media ban he still held The Office of The President and could easily hold a press conference in the White House pressroom. This would surely be attended by every major news outlet in the country and abroad. He could release official statements through his Press Secretary, he could schedule an impromptu interview with a news anchor or attend a nightly news show. All this to say that there are ways to get his message out. Ultimately in terms of Presidential message and national policy, social media is not a monopoly and The President does have other options. This is unlike a power company or other utility where citizens who don’t like the conduct of the power company may not have other reasonable options to pursue. We need to decide if we are going to treat social media companies as utilities or not.
So then the question is, “But what if CNN doesn’t cover his message accurately because they are biased?” or “What if they refuse to show his speech because they don’t like him?” Well I think in this case the basic economics of supply and demand come into effect. If the American people want to hear what The President has to say, then they will move to whatever platform has the coverage and content they are looking for. Simply put, the demand for access to The President would be greater than the supply. Thus, the media companies would be incentivized to provide the content their viewers are looking for, not out of moral obligation but as simple good business practices. However, if that conduct violates their policies in a more detrimental way to their business than keeping the perpetrator on their platform brings benefit, they would likely make the value judgement to remove them. This is essentially a cost benefit analysis by the social media companies. Interestingly, the benefit to a social media company is public user engagement and so the public will has some influence over the decision making of the social media company.
All of this really comes back to the enforcement of a “user agreement.” Social media companies have a right to set a user agreement just as the Apple App Store does and just as your local sports venue does. If you agree to conduct yourself by those standards you may participate. If you don’t, then the company has the right to remove you. If you disagree with those standards then you can stop using that service or attending that venue and find something else that meets your requirements.
Along these lines, I think that big tech companies took a real risk in terms of their business by banning President Trump. Recent research shows that Facebook engagement is mostly from conservative viewpoints. For more information see this POLITICO article:
In the last few days we have seen many on the right, who are angry about the censorship of President Trump, leave Facebook and Twitter for alternative ways of social media communication such as Parlor and Signal. These companies have seen a massive influx in their usership due to their relaxed user agreement and conduct standards.
To Ban or Not To Ban…. Is This Even The Right Question?
Recent events aside, I think that the issue of censorship on social media platforms raises some very serious and real questions about the direction we as a society want to head. I did an interesting thought experiment the other day and wanted to share it with you…
While I don’t support much of Trump’s policies or practices, I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone who does. Or really, I tried to imagine if instead of targeting Trump, Facebook execs decided that they would go and censor all posts regarding climate change, something I care deeply about! I have to say even just thinking about this made me angry, frustrated and disenfranchised. Something I have to imagine Trump supporters must be feeling now. Ultimately, this thought experiment brought up the previously mentioned questions that might be interesting for you to ponder in the next few weeks. I certainly do not have the answers and as a result have had many interesting and thought-provoking conversations, which, although have been great, they have brought me no closer to answers. As a result, I pose them to you…
Ben Velardi, Author/Founder