The complicated issue of free speech on social media

01/Dec/2016 · 3 MINS READ

Should posts on social media platforms be censored?

In the wake of an election result that some claim was affected by fake news on Facebook, this question now hangs over us like a dark cloud.

For most of our social networks, their answer is an unequivocal yes. As they are all run by private entities, companies like Facebook and Twitter are fully able to set their own terms, conditions and restrictions on who can post and what can be posted.

Or as Jillian C. York, director for the international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, put it, “Legally, we have no right to be heard on these platforms.”

By itself, this may not be a cause for concern. After all, we all agree to the Terms and Conditions when we sign up to use digital services. The problem, however, rears its head when you try to look into the details of those conditions.

The language behind many of these content guidelines is left totally open-ended, and their focus on preventing offence means that if enough people report your post, whether with good cause or malicious intentions, it will be taken down, at least until you lodge an appeal.

And, as uncovered by the Index on Censorship, the small teams of moderators simply can’t keep up with the volume of flagged content and their subsequent appeals, especially in light of almost universally secretive terms and conditions.

This leads to a remarkable number of inconsistencies when it comes to censorship on social media – across both sides of political and social divides.

When conservative troll Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter earlier this year after consistent racist harassment of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones, it’s fair to say this was widely accepted as the right decision.

However, interestingly his thousands of followers who were doing the same thing were left largely untouched, and Milo’s Presidential candidate of choice, Donald Trump, was also left uncensored, despite posting Tweets that were insensitive and often bordered on being racist. Like the time he used an anti-Semitic Star of David meme to imply Clinton’s corporate greed, or when he said his eating tacos on Cinco de Mayo meant he loved Hispanics. With these, and many other, incidents, there has been little consistency or explanation from Twitter.

Similar practices often affect more left-leaning media and users as well. While it struggles with stopping the dissemination of fake news, Facebook has managed to block everything from stories promoting the legalisation of marijuana to political cartoons critical of Israel. And who could forget the Instagram bans on the body-positive “Curvy” and “Free the Nipple” hashtags? Those posts were also removed for not following the platform’s vague restrictions.

But censorship can also come from governments. When the Israeli government requested Twitter take down a post alleging a government member was guilty of a crime, Twitter did as they were told. Once again, they refused to comment beyond saying that some “authorized entities” (i.e. governments) had the right to censor certain posts. And when it’s not politically opposing governments you have to deal with, it’s the unclear content guidelines that these social media companies continuously refuse to comment on.

In using censorship to try to create neatly curated, clean online spaces, social networks are driving us to a future where all that’s allowed are funny cat videos or food photos. The potential for these platforms to stimulate sharing and discourse, which is what made them so popular to begin with, will be gone.

Democracy is founded on discussion, and removing the ability to debate and educate on social platforms could have damaging repercussions for the future of global electorates. And as these networks aren’t run by governmental organisations, it’s up to their users to keep this degradation in check.

A big first step in this direction would be to rectify the issues that have plagued many of the blocked posts and users mentioned so far: a lack of consistency and clarity around censorship.

If platforms like Facebook and Twitter release clear content guidelines, it then becomes that much easier for users to know what can and can’t be posted. It will also allow users who feel their content has been wrongfully banned to more directly appeal and counter those decisions.

As Ms York put it, “we have to keep the pressure on companies and have a public conversation about what we want from social media”. Because as much as I love puppy pictures, I don’t love only puppy pictures.