Over the course of the Trump administration, pressure from pundits, politicians and the general public mounted against social media companies. The case against Big Tech — specifically social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — continued to grow, starting with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the president’s countless lies and far-right agitators, finally culminating in vaccine misinformation, QAnon and the storming of the Capitol. This has caused people, especially in liberal and left-leaning circles, to call for a crackdown on misinformation, online and even on cable television.
I recognize the very real harms that misinformation and hateful content cause. However, I worry that calls for removing such content from these platforms risks further entrenching the power of unaccountable establishment institutions like large tech companies. It is because of that threat that I believe the left especially should actually champion free expression online — instead, many celebrate curtailing it.
Perhaps the largest profile and most recent example is the banning of former President Trump from social media. Following Trump’s ban from several social media platforms, election misinformation plummeted. His ban might have been justified with the unprecedented and immediate threat of violence at the time. However, I share Senator Bernie Sanders’ concern over his ban. And while his months-long attack on election integrity was extraordinarily damaging, there is not a clear standard we can apply to claims of election fraud.
We can see how such a standard would fail when applied to Bolivia’s elections in 2019. Results showed incumbent, left-wing President Evo Morales winning a decisive victory, yet the Organization of American States, an inter-American organization that monitors elections, soon alleged widespread voter fraud. Major newspapers, magazines and even the U.S. Department of State repeated these findings, leading to a violent military coup. The problem is that a followup study indicated there was no election fraud. If Facebook or Twitter had applied their new policies to Bolivia, they likely would have sided with the Organization of American States — and subsequently, the military government — rather than Morales.
The same questions should be applied to Facebook and Twitter’s use of fact-checking labels, which are meant to flag misleading information, disputed claims and unverified claims. Fact checks are not always accurate and can even be weaponized. As such, we should limit fact checks to media organizations individually disputing the post’s claims about the post, rather than social media companies attaching it to the specific post in question, the latter of which allows social media companies to determine what the truth is. For example, if a fact-checking or news organization like the Associated Press or Snopes feels that a post contains misinformation, they can reply to that post or make their own post debunking it.
And in October of 2020, Facebook and Twitter went far beyond attaching labels to posts — in response to a New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the companies suppressed the spread of the article — Facebook and Twitter banned users from linking the story, and Twitter even temporarily locked the New York Post’s account. The veracity of the story does not matter, and that power should frighten anybody, especially right before a presidential election.
The left has a storied history supporting free speech and dissent, from the Espionage Act and early labor movements to the House Un-American Activities Committee, antiwar protests and the Free Speech Movement. In fact, free speech has been central to the survival of the left precisely because of its lack of institutional power. And with the emerging movement to concede power to tech companies, many news sites, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, activists and dissidents on the left are being suppressed or banned as well. In censoring and suppressing some content, those of establishment opinions or from establishment sources are more likely to be entrenched.
There are several things I believe 5C students should think about and act on. For one, 5C students very often take up jobs in tech companies after graduating, and others will go on to start tech companies or shape the policy around social media moderation. That means they have an outsized influence on how we moderate information.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s position on social media moderation is, in my opinion, what 5C students should lobby for. That means content not protected by the first amendment such as child pornography and threats of immediate violence should be taken down. However, broader misinformation and hate speech should not be. The better way to counter said content is to isolate it — as well as stand in solidarity with marginalized groups — rather than uplift it. That requires acknowledging that some people will share illogical, unsubstantiated, bigoted and even dangerous opinions and will convince other people of them. But I think that is a price we must be willing to pay to protect free speech.
There are other issues to address as well, like how algorithms reward sensationalist content, organizations with money can target users with deceitful ads — from PragerU ads to misinformation about mail-in-voting — and hateful individuals can profit from their content. I believe, however, that these can be solved outside of restricting the spread of content.
Combating the systems that let fake news spread faster than true news might mean changing how our recommendation engines work. The same applies to advertising with abolishing the surveillance economy to prevent the hyper-targeted spread of disinformation. And for making money from content, I believe that requires a more serious debate about profit models of these companies, though I think deplatforming and demonetizing or depromoting are distinct issues.
These are not simple conversations or solutions. However, it is necessary that we confront the ramifications of defining the scope of acceptable conversations on tech platforms that have become our modern-day town squares.
Carter Moyer HM ’24 is from Rye, New York. He believes the right to free speech extends only as far as the right to dissent and must include speech you despise.