The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has essentially been frozen out of his Facebook and Instagram account, and now has been thrown out of twitter, permanently. These actions have been justified on the basis that the President is inciting violence and delegitimizing the election of his successor, Joe Biden. While not going into the merit of these actions, there are serious questions raised about the ability of ‘Big tech’ companies to censor and limit information.
The issue here is that platform providers such as Twitter and Facebook’s increasing regulation due to political dysfunction is creating pressure to regulate their users content generation. This arguably takes away the ‘platform’ part of the equation for these companies. Rather than being platforms that facilitate speech and take no responsibility for the content and remove illegal content, by curating information in search of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’, the platforms are functioning like traditional outlets, who would be responsible for the content they are sharing.
The argument that these platforms are essentially private and therefore the regulation of content does not affect free speech is specious. Yes, these companies are private platforms and do not legally have to offer the same free speech rights given to citizens as against State action under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. However, these platforms have now evolved into a virtual public square. The ability to deplatform and therefore completely vanish ideas and thoughts overnight. In other words, Soviet-Style Platforms are possible at a mass scale overnight.
Nikolay Yeshov, the head of the NKVD or the Soviet Secret Police, was removed from this photograph with Stalin after he fell out of favour and was executed.
This would be alarmist, yes. But the ability of these corporations to channel and regulate content is nothing to scoff at. Due to the network effect, everyone and their grandmother is on Facebook and Instagram. The algorithms that control content regulation here will decide the fate of many ‘cute’ cat videos but also political and social content. This form of mass-based content creation does not have parallels in history. The creation of free speech laws is meant to allow people to think, say and publish. The last part, publishing — which was once the monopoly of moneyed elites and powerful forces has now been decentralized. Anyone can say anything and that can be seen by everyone. It is a powerful tool that alters the nature of social, political and cultural relationships. The negative consequences of this mass-decentralization of publishing through these platforms means that harassment and conspiracy theories are also able to capture audiences that hitherto were oblivious to to it. By focusing only on these aspects however, we are being disingenuous as they have to be viewed in the light of positive consequences. The ability to connect, convey and state information, ideas, opinions and facts on these networks should be as free as possible. Those companies have a duty to do this, and not curate content to their liking.
With a significant section of a population using these platforms, the limiting of any information or the widespread propagation of any information can influence multiple ‘real-world’ outcomes. That which may be ‘accurate’ , ‘authentic’ or ‘factual’ can change. The U-turns during COVID-19 Pandemic’s initial days regarding the use of masks are a prime example. That which seems “Authentic” may not be as authentic at the end of the day. It may only be the prevailing dictum or consensus of the society. By removing the ability of the much vaunted ‘dissent’ by a minority, it creates false perceptions of permanent accuracy.
The ‘private companies, private free speech regulation is okay’ argument is not as simple. The concept of free speech is not mere a legal right; it is a principle that must be imbibed in a democratic society — the masses should be allowed to use the virtual public square without the content being overtly regulated by Social Media giants to cover ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’ information. That a critical mass of our populations use these networks is enough to make us extremely worried about the consequences of ‘truth-seeking’ and regulation by these companies. What if under this story there was a fact check:
“The Author obfuscates and egregiously compares Technology Platforms to Soviet Style Censorship. This is not accurate. Learn more here->”
That would be quite scary.
Making these companies liable to offer same protections as against the government is however not the answer. The regulation and moderation of such content is a tricky issue and there exists no panacea. But a good start would be to stop pretending that Twitter’s, Instagram’s and Facebook’s regulations don’t affect free speech. It does.