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Censorship on social media networks has been a growing discussion in recent years, and is a debate as old as that of privacy. It remains a topic of major contention, the consensus on which remains up in the air as companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat all handle it in their own way.
So far, there seem to be three stances on the matter from these three companies: neutrality, censorship and a sweet spot somewhere in the middle courtesy of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat respectively.
Let us explain.
Social media censorship: The good, the bad, and the moderate
There has been an ongoing bouncing of ideas (for lack of a harsher term) among media, regulators, officials and social media networks about the content that goes on their sites, and whether they should police their networks in light of the content that has been often propagated on their platforms. Violence and profanity aside, what was being addressed here was mostly divisive political content. Naturally, one of the most divisive political personalities of recent history has been the number one target of this: US President Donald Trump.
Over the years, even before he took the Presidency, President Trump’s tweets have often been controversial, and this was made worse when he actually achieved the status of POTUS, and gained actual levergeable power. Given this recipe for disaster, increased scrutiny has been placed on his tweets as time went on.
Facebook takes a neutral stance
While many called for censorship of Trump’s shared content, including Facebook employees, little was actually done towards this end. CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes social media networks shouldn’t be the “arbiter[s] of truth,” and continues to sit out this whole debate, including whether biased, sometimes inaccurate political ad campaigns on social media networks should be censored.
When asked about this during an exchange with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a House Financial Services Committee hearing, Zuckerberg replied: “Well, Congresswoman,” he answered, “I think lying is bad, and if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad.” Ultimately, he said, such an ad would not be prohibited on Facebook.
Facebook employees, however, say that Facebook, whether consciously or though its algorithm, has always been biased: “Facebook isn’t neutral, and never has been.” This is because Facebook’s algorithm, like the algorithms of other platforms, always promotes content that receives the most engagement. It so happens that Presidential posts (which often are of controversial nature) always receive high engagement. You can connect the dots from there.
Trump declares war on Twitter
Twitter, on the other hand, which is often Trump’s preferred network for sharing his thoughts and strong opinions, came under fire by the US President after they slapped a fact checking label on two of his tweets.
“Twitter has for the first time taken action against a series of tweets by Donald Trump, labeling them with a warning sign and providing a link to further information,” The Guardian reported late last month, among other outlets.
“The company’s decision… to affix labels to a series of Trump tweets about California’s election planning is the result of a new policy debuted on 11 May. They were applied – hours after the tweets initially went out – because Trump’s tweets violated Twitter’s “civic integrity policy”, a company spokeswoman confirmed, which bars users from “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes”, such as by posting misleading information that could dissuade people from participating in an election.”
This censorship effort was met by swift retribution by Trump.
It is worthy of note that this isn’t the first time Twitter takes action against political content. Last November, the platform decided to ban all political advertising on its platform. This hasn’t stopped Trump from using their social media network to further his current election campaign in his tweets – until now.
Naturally, Trump was not taking this lightly. In fact, he took swift action.
Trump said the move was to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.”
“A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States,” he claimed, as reported by CNN. “They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.”
Whether his administration will be able to truly enact what they’re now setting out to do remains to be seen.
“Trump has little authority to shut the businesses, which are also central to his re-election campaign and communications strategy with the public,” Bloomberg stated. “Furthermore, the president’s threat violates the First Amendment, which protects free speech, says Herbert Hovenkamp, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Trump would like to shut them down because of the message. That’s something you can’t do,” Hovenkamp said. “Trump doesn’t have any authority to shut down a company that’s not breaking the law.”
Not long after, another of his tweets got labeled and censored, this time for “glorifying violence”:
It seems Twitter will continue to censor Trump’s tweets as they see fit, regardless of what action he takes against them.
Snapchat finds a middle ground
The Trump-Twitter war aside, Snapchat could have finally found the perfect middle ground – the sweet spot between inaction and active censorship.
“President Trump’s verified Snapchat account will no longer be promoted within the app after executives concluded that his tweets over the weekend promoted violence, the company said today. His account, RealDonaldTrump, will remain on the platform and continue to appear on search results. But he will no longer appear in the app’s Discover tab, which promotes news publishers, elected officials, celebrities, and influencers,” The Verge reported.
This provides an interesting precedent that, maybe, other platforms could follow. By keeping Trump on the platform to keep his content accessible, while diminshing his reach, Snapchat has taken a curious decision.
“In debates about social media censorship, first amendment scholars caution that freedom of speech isn’t the same thing as freedom of reach. You are guaranteed a voice—but not an audience, or virality,” Bloomberg writes. “Snap’s innovation was to take away Trump’s reach. It may have been a masterstroke of moderation, side-stepping the issue entirely. Or its decision to make a call based on instinct, rather than a weighty policy rulebook, could set a difficult precedent. But either way, it’s opened up a new front in the fight over who gets to say what, and to whom, online.”