In the wake of Alex Jones’ banning from Facebook, YouTube and Apple the outrage has been palpable. And that is understandable. There is no doubt that there is a bias on these social media platforms against what is often described as ‘far right’ viewpoints. Anything slightly right of centre is described as ‘far right’ these days, so it’s no wonder that people on the right are concerned when they see another instance of voices being silenced on three of the big social media platforms.
The problem with being outraged about these acts of private censorship is that the natural inclination is to look to government to do something about it. It’s all too tempting to look to any easy fix when an injustice is perceived and, in this case, the easy fix would be for government to step in and somehow insist that social media platforms quit censoring views that they think are socially unacceptable. But whenever we consider the good that government can or can’t do it’s worth remembering that the government is made up of politicians. When considering any form of government intervention in any aspect of private enterprise and activity, replacing ‘government’ with ‘politicians’ helps to ground one’s perspective. Would we really want politicians sticking their nose into the operations of private social media companies?
One argument going around is that the big social media platforms are so huge that they are akin to public utilities. This is a dangerous argument. Claiming that popular businesses or platforms have somehow become public property as justification for implementing restrictions and regulations is just a form of appropriation of private property. And private property is the concept that underlies our freedoms to produce, exchange and keep the proceeds of our own efforts. To seek to enforce a particular outcome on a private enterprise using the power of the state would be wrong.
But we must also shine a spotlight on the ethical practices of the companies involved. It is clear in Facebook’s terms and conditions that they claim the right to suspend accounts if they “determine that you have breached [their] terms or policies”. They “may take action against your account…including by suspending access to your account or disabling it.” By using Facebook we accept these conditions.
They do however claim that their “mission is all about embracing diverse views”. According to Facebook they “err on the side of allowing content, even when some find it objectionable unless removing that content can prevent a specific harm.” Understanding this then, it seems that in order for Facebook to be fulfilling their own stated aims they must be able to demonstrate that the content of Alex Jones’ page – or that of any other pages they have removed – presents the threat of a specific harm. In removing Alex Jones’ page without explicitly describing the specific harm his page presents, they are failing to be transparent about their policies.
There is a more important argument about censorship to be made, however, beyond that of legalities. Some people like to argue that the only valid form of censorship is censorship by the state. But of course, there is more to it than that. John Stuart Mill described it thusly: “‘There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent”. Because of course the reason that the social media behemoths ban people like Alex Jones is down to fear. Fear of the screeching mobs, fear of the prevailing public opinion, and fear that they may upset the majority of their customers and hence be exposed to potential negative effects on their bottom line.
Also, there is the very real possibility that big corporations like Apple, Google and Facebook have relationships with those in power in order to protect their own interests. Who knows what special pleading or mutually beneficial deals are made behind closed doors that embolden these groups to censor voices of people who may be a threat against establishment figures?
But before we go too far down that road it would do well to remember the axiom of Hanlon’s Razor: “never attribute to malice, that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” And stupidity is most likely all that is in play. By cowering in the face of public opinion, the powers that be in the boardrooms of Facebook, Apple and Google have probably signed their own death warrants. Their dishonesty, hypocrisy and partisanship will not go unnoticed by the millions of people who currently use these platforms. They may be within their rights to deplatform certain individuals but the market will always out, and they ignore the market at their own peril. They may be near monopoly players in the world of social media, but they will not hold the reigns of market dominance forever.
If you are unhappy with the censoriousness of the social media giants on display what can you do? One thing is to seek out other platforms. This is hard, admittedly seeing as they simply don’t have the reach that the big players currently have. But this is only temporary. Spread out your feelers and stake some territory in these new arenas. The other thing to do is make your dissatisfaction known. Decry corporate and civil censorship wherever you see it. We can simultaneously recognise that the social media giants are within their rights to ban and deplatform speakers, while at the same time criticising them for failing to live up to their advertised ideal of embracing diverse views.
Nicola Wright is managing editor at LibertyWorks
Illustration: Ten Thirteen Productions/Twentieth Century Fox.
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