Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Social media companies’ free speech problem

While they must address real harmsranging from doxxing to child pornographythey should give the widest possible latitude to the ideal of freedom of expression

When Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey appears before two US Congress committees today, he will face a difficult question: Have social media companies now become so powerful that they are digital public squares that cannot be trusted to govern themselves? The precedent set here will have implications. The question has been asked in various forms for some years now. It has gotten louder after the 2016 US presidential elections with the revelation of Russian interference via social media. This time, however, the stakes are higher. The House Commerce Committee will grill Dorsey about whether Twitter is disproportionately harsh in banning conservative voices. It is part of a broader debate about platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter banning a number of voices on the American right for violating their guidelines on hate speech and harassment—particularly Alex Jones, far right purveyor of kooky conspiracy theories. This hits far closer to home for the political establishment than foreign interference, a relatively bipartisan matter.

This has been a while coming. Dorsey and his ilk—from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin—are steeped in Silicon Valley’s techno-libertarian philosophy, a legacy of the early days of the internet. It was never likely to withstand the rigours of messy political and socio-cultural realities. The Macedonian teenagers who churned out fake news stories about the 2016 elections put deep dents in it. In the aftermath, social media companies took on the responsibility of policing their platforms. In doing so, they moved away from their stance that they were not responsible for the content on their platforms—an argument they have used to fob off government attempts to hold them accountable in various countries, including in India. Accepting editorial responsibility has now opened them up to two competing tensions.

The first is the push to prevent harassment and hate speech. There are genuine considerations about user experience and safety here. For instance, the practice of “doxxing"—publicly posting personal information, including phone numbers and addresses, of individuals who have angered other users—can have dangerous real-world consequences. Other arguments are more ideological. They hold that the classical liberal approach of defeating prejudiced or hateful rhetoric in the marketplace of ideas does not work. Such rhetoric gains more prominence when it is countered.

This is a problem traditional media has dealt with. George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party in the 1960s, wrote in his autobiography: “Only by forcing the Jews to spread our message with their facilities (newspapers) could we have any hope of success in counteracting their left-wing, racemixing propaganda!" Thus, over the years, editors in traditional media have decided that some opinions are beyond the pale and will not be represented. Social media platforms must follow suit and “quarantine" such voices, goes the argument.

The second tension stems from the inevitable backlash that any attempt by social media companies to police political speech that is deemed too extreme will invite—indeed, is already inviting in the US. A cursory look at the number of social media followers Prime Minister Narendra Modi or US President Donald Trump boast of points to the manner in which political mobilisation now occurs via digital mediums. The Bharatiya Janata Party, in particular, pioneered digital mobilization with its 2014 election campaign. Other parties have followed suit at every level of governance. Witness the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee now issuing a letter mandating that all state and district level office-bearers, ticket aspirants and MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) must be active on social media, as The Print has reported (goo.gl/1NJrv6).

Given this, there is good reason to be wary of heavy-handed attempts by social media companies to decide which opinions are acceptable and which are not. One man’s political belief is another’s hate speech. This is particularly true in India where constitutional protection for free speech is hedged about with caveats and Indian Penal Code provisions such as Section 295A and Section 153A are so vague so as to be endlessly malleable. The idea of private companies deciding the contours of the digital political battleground is thus an uneasy one.

Social media may now have accepted part of the burden of responsibility that traditional media bears. It exists, however, in an entirely different form and context. The answers it finds will likewise have to be different. For one, the role of a platform is fundamentally different from that of the curator and gatekeeper that traditional media represents. While it must address real harms—ranging from doxxing and speech that poses a threat of inciting violence to child pornography and sex trafficking—it should give the widest possible latitude to the ideal of freedom of expression. It is better to err on the side of speech that some find offensive or hateful than in stifling dissent and legitimate expression.

For their part, governments—whether in Washington or New Delhi—will do more harm than good if they give in to the temptation to dictate how private companies should operate their platforms. New Delhi has been eager to head down this path, as its leaning on WhatsApp instead of addressing the failures of a weak state has shown. Here is something political parties would do well to remember: The constraints they impose on social media companies today may be turned against them tomorrow when they are no longer in power.

Should social media companies ban hate speech? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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