Social media platforms hold enormous potential to liberate ideas and information from the grips of national governments and media conglomerates. After all, ideas and arguments may now be publicised by just about anyone who is computer literate enough to open a Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube account.
But the heavy-handed regulation of social media content by a handful of multinational corporations has severely limited the empowering potential of this new “marketplace of ideas.” Frequently, what we have seen on social media is not the vibrant contestation of rival ideas, but a tightly controlled forum in which arguments and claims that dissent from the “official” version of events are suppressed by faceless “fact-checkers” who apparently answer to nobody but themselves.
Numerous claims that are plausible, well argued, and supported by eminent scientists, are periodically suppressed on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as “false,” “misleading,” “dangerous,” or “in violation of community standards.”
Here are some of the claims that have met with the ire of social media giants:
- the theory that SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that was manipulated by gain-of-function technology in a Wuhan lab (a theory that has somehow now made its way back onto the list of “acceptable” beliefs);
- the claim that there is no good ethical or scientific basis for vaccinating children, given the miniscule risk posed to them by Covid-19;
- the claim that available evidence points against the efficacy of universal masking;
- and the claim that certain drugs, including Ivermectin, have proved to be effective in the treatment of Covid-19.
Respected scientists and doctors have come down on both sides of these questions. But the mere fact that an assertion is scientifically contested does not automatically entitle any regulator, private or public, to categorise it as “false,” “misleading,” or “dangerous,” and it certainly does not make it worthy of outright suppression.
While silencing of speech that promotes violent, destructive or unsafe behaviour might be justifiable, it is very difficult to think of any plausible defence for the sort of aggressive, paternalistic, and reactionary censorship that we see on a regular basis on social media platforms. And there are plenty of reasons to reject it as unacceptable in a free society.
First of all, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the faceless “Fact Checkers” who anonymously arbitrate the truth value of the assertions made on their platforms are any better qualified to distinguish truth from falsehood than the people whose claims they are judging, including scientists of world-leading universities.
“Fact-checkers,” in spite of their pretence to objectivity, are just as susceptible to personal prejudices, ideological blindspots, and errors of judgment as the people they are censoring. The sources “fact-checkers” rely on, such as scientists enlisted in national or international advisory committees, are just as susceptible to error as their counterparts in universities and private industry. Consequently, a “fact-checking” system would not only shield us from false and dangerous claims, but life-saving truths.
By punishing and suppressing “deviant” discourse, Big Tech censors send out a warning to others to stay in line. This produces a “chilling effect” whereby social media users pre-emptively withhold controversial opinions in order to avoid getting in trouble with the “fact-checkers” or getting their accounts suspended. This is the very opposite of the scientific method, which urges us to examine the unlikeliest and least conventional of hypotheses with an open mind.
The premise behind aggressive censorship policies is that there is a repository of unquestionable scientific, moral and political Truths that a team of “fact-checkers” can access and defend against peddlers of false and “unsafe” opinions.
This is an extraordinarily naïve view of how knowledge is acquired and developed. The way we uncover truth is by testing out competing claims in dialogue with those who disagree with them. It is only if scientific, moral and political claims are exposed to public scrutiny and counter-arguments that they can be properly tested, corrected and refined over time.
Heavy-handed censorship promotes dogmatic and shallow thinking, which is an enormous impediment to social learning and progress. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the context of a global pandemic: During a pandemic, social media censorship may inadvertently screen out invaluable information regarding effective treatments for Covid-19, the short and long-term risks associated with vaccines, and the comparative merits of competing strategies for mitigating the spread of infectious disease, from hand-washing and social distancing to community masking and lockdowns.
The argument we sometimes hear in defence of social media censorship is that since Google-YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are private companies, they may set whatever rules they wish for the use of their services. After all, if you don’t like their rules, you can always switch to another platform, right?
There is certainly something to be said for this argument. However, it overlooks one crucial fact, namely, that companies with aggressive censorship policies, such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, have managed to capture a very large part of the infrastructure of our public sphere. At least for now, they have no rivals who have managed to seriously threaten their commanding position in the social media market.
This means that even though they are neither elected nor held publicly accountable for the way they restrict speech on their platforms, a handful of Big Tech corporations now enjoy something bordering on an oligopoly over the infrastructure of the digital public sphere.
Some might say, “good on them for being so successful.” But would we be comfortable with a handful of large, unelected corporations buying up all of the public spaces in a city and aggressively censoring interventions in public debate that they found ideologically or politically unpalatable?
Of course, a private company does have the right to set the terms and conditions of the services it offers. However, when the terms upon which those services are offered begin to fundamentally condition the quality of public debate in a democracy, the purveyor of those services begins to exercise a critical public function, and therefore is no longer just a private company like any other.
Free market principles are important, but not more important than the integrity of our public sphere. It may be time to give serious consideration to downsizing the media giants that now dominate our public sphere, so as to give rival platforms, with less intrusive censorship policies, a realistic chance of competing with them toe to toe.