Free Speech and Twitter

Recent events have prompted several social media companies to suspend quite a few accounts. This has reinvigorated discussions around the role these platforms play and their relationship to free speech. This topic is certainly important, but also subject to several common errors. Although the best policy is unclear, one hopes to at least whittle away some errors. So, in the spirit of falsification, here are some common misconceptions.

  1. Since Twitter is a private company, the first amendment does not apply. While true, this is also irrelevant. The question is rarely a legal test of what Twitter can do, but generally what ought Twitter be able to do. As society's conversations increasingly move onto digital platforms, it's very reasonable to want hard-learned principles to follow.

  2. Free speech means that all speech is protected. It's possible to be a strong supporter of free speech without necessarily being an absolutist. For example, death threats are not protected speech. Similarly, many jurisdictions do not hold that "direct incitements to violence" are protected. As such, Twitter blocking some content, or some users, is not, by itself, a general attack on free speech or censorship.

  3. Free speech is not free of consequences. This is a trite rhetorical trick, as it elides the consequences being questioned, and confuses desired consequences, such as learning and communication, with consequences in debate, such as imposing penalties. At the end of the day, it is hard to see attacking livelihoods as less than censorship by other means.

...and free speech is largely a red herring...

The main influence of social media companies is not whether or not they publish content, but which pieces of content get amplified by their algorithms. Just imagine the difference between needing to navigate to Donald Trump's twitter page, and having the worse of Donald Trump inserted into your feed. The difference between passively publishing user content and promoting particular user content is huge. In fact, social media feeds are probably more like original music built using samples than a collection of independent pieces. There is a reason that social media platforms do better to promote tweets and memes rather then long-form content. It may not be a complete solution, but social media companies should be considered less like publishers, and more like authors.

In the end, even if social media companies are shielded from liability for user-generated content, how will they take responsibility for their assembly of the disparate pieces?

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