US President Trump has just signed an executive order to reign in social media companies like Twitter from censoring their political opponents.
The level of censorship against conservative and pro-life people on social media in the last few years has been clear to everyone with eyes. Most people by now have at least heard stories about people who have been banned. Maybe you’ve even been banned yourself. It’s almost ubiquitous or a badge of honour at this point. You don’t have to be particularly controversial or whacky to fall victim to it.
For example, the Twitter account for the pro-life movie “Unplanned” was actually suspended until the company got so much backlash that they backpeddled and restored the account, claiming it was a technical error. Yeah, right. As was pointed out by the movie’s writer and director, Chuck Konzelman, it’s interesting how these alleged “technical errors” only seem to happen to conservatives and people on the right. What a funny coincidence.
It’s also got to be highlighted that a movie giving the pro-life perspective is unacceptable, but Chinese communist propaganda, hardcore pornography, and violent rhetoric from former CNN hosts are not. Give us a break.
In fact, even after the Unplanned account was restored, many of its previous followers had reportedly been wiped and some claimed they weren’t able to follow the account again. And to top it all off, this happened in the first weekend of the film’s release, which is the most important moment from a marketing perspective of any movie launch.
But ultimately, you could give a hundred examples of stories like these. They’re commonplace now. So finally, in response to years of online crackdowns on right-leaning opinions, President Trump has apparently moved to do something about this.
As it stands, social media companies have enjoyed a level of protection due to their status as a platform and not a publisher. If you’re a normal media outlet like Gript or RTÉ, and you publish or broadcast something libelous on your site, naturally you can be sued for that. But the argument of these social media sites until now has been “Hey guys, we’re not publishing anything. We’re just the platform for people to put up whatever they like. We don’t take responsibility for the views and statements of others.” And this has defence shielded them from legal liability for a long time.
But as the White House is now arguing, if they’re engaging in censorship and curating who can and can’t be on their platform based on people’s views, that also means they’re de facto endorsing all the other content on the site. If they fact check the American President when he says something they deem to be false, but they don’t fact check the Chinese Government lying that it was Western soldiers who started covid, then they are being selective and they are a publisher. If they delete this person on the Right, but keep that person on the Left, now they’re making choices, and they are no longer a neutral platform. They have to pick one side or another, they can’t be allowed to get away with this occupying this chameleon state and morphing as they see fit.
The long and short of this executive order means that either way, silicon valley is in trouble. If they decide to go with the platform defence, then all censorship has to end. If they go with the publisher defence, they will be sued into oblivion. Every time someone lies about another person online, threatens them, or does anything illegal, they will be open to civil litigation, because they allowed it to stay up on their site. They will effectively be cosigning all content that isn’t immediately removed.
This has particular significance here in Ireland, where Google and YouTube suspended all ads related to the 2018 abortion referendum. This massively hampered the pro-life side, as the pro-choice lobby were able to make much easier use of a sympathetic mainstream media and overwhelming (arguably illegal) funding from figures like George Soros, while pro-lifers relied heavily on social media and guerilla tactics. A change in the law regarding how big tech companies can manage political thought will spell good news about the future of Ireland’s electoral process.
This is a developing story, and we’ll have to see where it goes, but it’s nice to be able to finally report some good news about free speech.