Who defines speech standards?
Suppose you decided to call me to complain about something I’d written. But after you punched in my number, you got a recording informing you that, “We’re sorry, but the person you are trying to reach has violated our standards and you are not permitted to call him.”
Or maybe I was trying to call you and heard the same message. Outrageous and unacceptable, right? The phone company can’t do that, can they?
Actually, they can. Your internet service provider can shut you off, too. That sometimes happens when customers use their phones to harass other people or commit other crimes. Ditto for internet access.
But the phone company doesn’t monitor my political or social opinions. I can spout comments that are merely objectionable all day long on the phone and, as long as they’re protected by the First Amendment, the phone company doesn’t care.
It’s different with some internet social media platforms. During the past few weeks, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and Twitter suspended, at least temporarily, a fellow named Alex Jones. One company accused him of engaging in hate speech. Another said he incited violence.
Some of the social media companies also have shut down Russian entities that had been using social media to set Americans at each others’ throats. For years, using false claims about those throughout the ideological spectrum, the Russians have been successful in convincing us we needed to demonize anyone who disagrees with us.
It won’t be difficult for Moscow to stay in business. The Kremlin’s social media operatives will find ways to disguise their identities and keep up the bad work.
It’s different for millions of Americans who merely want to share ideas and, occasionally, argue about things. Once a social media company has my internet protocol number, they can shut me out quite effectively.
Why would they do that? Because I’ve violated their standards of use. Those standards vary, but they’re remarkably similar to some used by one phone/internet service company that bans users from being “obscene, indecent, hateful, malicious, racist, defamatory, fraudulent, libelous, treasonous, excessively violent or promoting the use of violence or otherwise harmful to others.”
“Otherwise harmful to others”? Define that one.
Such vague language gives the big companies virtually unfettered ability to keep us from communicating with one another.
Phone companies use that power very, very rarely. But then, they’re dealing with one-on-one calls. Social media empowers one-on-millions communications. That’s why the social media companies are so quick to shut out anyone with whom their executives or standards police disagree.
Wonderful, you may think. What’s wrong with prohibiting “hate speech?”
It depends on who gets to define the term. As matters stand, a tiny handful of big social media companies can do that — simply because we’ve come to rely on them.
What happens when they decide comments such as those in this column are “otherwise harmful to others?” How would you react if they booted you off YouTube for posting a video your West Virginia and Ohio neighbors loved — but which someone in California decided was “otherwise harmful?”
President Donald Trump, whose ongoing dislike of “fake news” gives him credibility in this context, put the problem well during his speech this week in Charleston.
“You can’t pick one person and say, well, we don’t like what he’s been saying, so he’s out,” Trump noted. “I’d rather have fake news … than have anybody, including liberals, socialists, anything, than have anybody stopped, censored.”
“We gotta live with it,” the president added, “We believe in the right of Americans to speak their minds.”
Precisely. So before you applaud the social media platforms for cutting off people like Alex Jones, ask yourself whether you’ve ever posted anything that could be classified as “otherwise harmful.”
Mike Myer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.