Social Media Censorship: From Both Sides of the Political Spectrum

Christina Dobbek and Riley Hall

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Conservative side:

The freedom of speech granted to citizens of the United States in the Constitution is probably the most important freedom granted to us. When freedom of speech is restricted, human nature is restricted.

Restricting freedom of speech is restricting the natural human function of freedom of thought, or the freedom to disagree. Federalist 10, an argumentative essay written by James Madison before the Constitution was ratified, describes the importance of disagreement in a free society.

Madison discusses something called tyranny of the majority which Merriam-Webster defines as “a situation in which a group of people are treated unfairly because their situation is different from the situation of most of the people in a democratic country.” He argues that citizens are protected from this sort of tyranny when a plurality of groups with different interests and beliefs are constantly having intellectual battles.

So, why does what Madison said in 1787 matter now? Because conservative voices are being silenced in public discourse on social media.

Although the United States is one of the most free countries in the world, there is a history of the United States suppressing outcasting political voices through the Alien and Sedition Acts prohibiting public criticism against the president, the Sedition Act of 1918 targeting left wing activists expressing dissent against U.S. participation in World War I, and the Hollywood Blacklist denying employment to those who were accused of holding communist views. Today, it is social media that has inherited that role.

For example, conservative political commentator for The Daily Wire Michael Knowles was locked out of his account for Tweeting a joke telling Democrats to vote on November 7, the day after the midterm elections, that apparently violated Twitters guidelines. He immediately followed with a Tweet saying, “Specifically, of course, I mean voting in this poll, which will be open until November 7: Should Twitter ban or suspend conservatives over election jokes?”

Similar Tweets went out by liberal Twitter users specifically telling Republicans to vote on November 7, but those people were not locked out of their Twitter accounts and Knowles reports that Twitter did not provide an explanation to why his account was locked.

According to Prager University, a non-profit conservative organization that makes videos on political, economic and philosophical issues, 9 posts on their Facebook page were blocked from all of their 3 million followers. Will Witt of Prager University says, “At least two of our video posts were deleted last night for ‘hate speech.’”

Merriam Webster defines hate speech as “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people,” but the United States does not have a legal definition of the term according to the American Library Association.

The only forms of speech that are not protected under the Constitution of the United States are, essentially, defamation and threats (of violence, blackmail, etc.). For example, if someone expressed disapproval, or even hatred,  for a particular group of people, they are allowed to do so. But if someone verbally threatened a member of that group, that speech is not protected.

Because the definition of hate speech is very vague and subjective, restricting this speech would be detrimental to a free society. Who gets to decide where the line is?

In Matal v. Tam, for example, the United States Supreme Court unanimously agreed that hate speech is protected under the first amendment. “[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” says Justice Samuel Alito.

Madison knew that if speech is dominated by one side of the political spectrum, freedoms are less likely to be protected. No matter how annoying Twitter arguments seem, political discourse is crucial to sustaining our freedoms.

To be clear, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media companies have the legal right to censor any speech they see fit because they are private companies, but social media has become increasingly important to public discourse. According to Pew Research Center, 68 percent of adults in the United States get at least some of their news from social media.

Facebook and Twitter clearly dominate social media used for political discussion by everyday individuals, so if one side of the argument is being silenced, where do they go to express their ideas?

According to Brookings Institution, “an overwhelming majority of technology entrepreneurs subscribe to a liberal ideology.” It is hard to avoid bias especially when you hold the power to push an agenda on millions of people.

The situations with Knowles and Prager University are not circumstantial.  “…liberal users are less likely than their conservative counterparts to get exposed to news content that oppose their political views. Another analysis of Yahoo! search queries concluded that [the] ‘more right-leaning a query it is, the more negative sentiments can be found in its search results,’” says Brookings Institution.

So, what is the solution?

People who really care about decreasing censorship on social media should start looking toward a future of using alternative social media sites to Twitter, Facebook and Youtube such as Vero or Gab.

One day, mainstream social media is going to regret silencing political voices.

Liberal side: 

The debate over the censorship of social media content is one of great nuance and full of “exceptions-to-the-rules.” This debate causes many to believe that social media has incited an unnecessary amount of violence and has propelled hate-speech targeted toward minority groups.

On the contrary, I feel that the uncensored utilization of social media as a tool for aiding citizens in their participation in the democratic process is a great use of technology. Social media has brought great attention to the oppression of minorities in America, as well as issues of women’s liberation and immigration.

The beauty of social media is that this technology has shrunk the chasms of distance between people from different backgrounds. The modern global community is very much interconnected by social media, as local politics slowly become global politics. This gives social media the power to set new precedents and shift the status-quo of representation in the media.

The Black Lives Matter movement, while primarily based online, allows followers to congregate and create real social change in their communities. The instances of the Ferguson Uprising as a result of the slaying of Michael Brown and instances like Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York are examples of injustices within the national community that have been given greater exposure thanks to social media and hashtags such as #ICantBreathe.

The #MeToo movement also gained great traction and publicity on social media. Women have felt empowered to speak up against their abusers, even men with much power in our society, such as Donald J. Trump.

As of 2016, about 44 million immigrants reside in the United States. Social media gives this demographic the tools to speak out about their passions and struggles, raising awareness for issues that may be considered more pertinent to the families of immigrants.

By raising awareness of the injustices among us and increasing the amount of diversity that is reflected in our media , the ambitions of young people across the globe have the potential to be ignited. When the marginalized are offered an image of someone they may identify with, this broadens their ideas of what they may come to be in the future.

The call for accountability and change is a powerful result of the political movements that have caught momentum on social media, allowing for the political climate to shift for the better, leaving more rights and dignity for everyone.

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