(Reuters file)
(Reuters file)

Opinion | When social media monopolies prey on freedom of expression

The biases of internet platforms are better fixed by market dynamics than by state intervention

US President Donald Trump has reportedly drafted an executive order that could put the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in charge of shaping how companies, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, curate what appears on their websites. Under existing US law, internet companies are mostly free to handle content as they see fit. They qualify for broad legal immunity when they suppress or take down objectionable content, at least when they are acting “in good faith".

Trump, fellow-Republicans and conservatives have been railing for quite some time against a supposed pro-liberal bias of social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. The draft order, currently titled “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship", calls for the FCC to develop new regulations clarifying how and when the law protects social media websites when they decide to remove or suppress content. The FCC will be asked to rule that sites do not qualify for good-faith immunity if they remove or suppress content without notifying the user who posted the material, or if the decision is proven to be anti-competitive, unfair or deceptive. The Federal Trade Commission will take these new policies into account in its anti-trust investigations.

Are the social media giants biased? Clearly, almost everyone who thinks so is from the political “right". In India, Bharatiya Janata Party supporters regularly complain that their Twitter accounts are suspended unfairly, while left-liberals are hardly ever hauled up. But this also seems to be the public perception. A June 2018 Pew Research Centre poll found that 72% of Americans believed that social media companies censored views they don’t like. While 43% said the companies support liberal views over conservative, only 11% thought the opposite.

Last year, Twitter suppressed (causing low visibility) the accounts of four Republican congressmen, and then backtracked after protests. After Korean-born Sarah Jeong was appointed to The New York Times editorial board, it was discovered that she had sent dozens of vicious anti-White racist tweets over the years (Twitter had allowed these). Activist Candace Owens copied some of Jeong’s tweets and replaced the word “white" with “Jewish" and “black", and tweeted, mentioning the source of the tweets and the word swaps. Twitter suspended her account, and, following a sharp backlash, apologized and restored it. Owens, an African-American herself, said that Twitter’s actions exposed its strange “liberal" standards—as long as you abuse the majority, you’re fine.

During a Congressional hearing in April 2018, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning place", but said he tries to make sure his firm’s work stays unbiased. Four months later, Brian Amerige, a senior engineer at Facebook, wrote a post on an internal message board of the company, where he said: “We are a political monoculture intolerant of different views… We claim to welcome all perspectives, but are quick to attack—often in mobs—anyone who presents a view that appears to be in opposition to left-leaning ideology." However, Amerige resigned in October, because “it became clear that [Facebook’s bosses] were committed to sacrificing free expression in the name of ‘protecting’ people".

In an interview with Hindustan Times in February, Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice-president of global public policy, said: “We are so unbiased that we don’t even categorize users on the basis of their political beliefs… Any assertion that Twitter factors in political beliefs or viewpoints in developing or enforcing our rules is false." Yet, what his CEO, Jack Dorsey, has been saying is somewhat different.

Last year, in an interview with journalism professor Jay Rosen, he admitted that such a large majority of Twitter employees lean left, that conservative staffers are afraid to voice their opinions. And, three weeks before Crowell’s HT interview, when journalist Sam Harris asked why “Twitter reliably lands on one side of the political divide", he responded: “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance anymore. I don’t believe that we should optimize for neutrality."

But there is a much bigger question here. Facebook and Twitter are private corporations, and should governments get to decide how they curate content? That’s a slippery slope, which can easily lead to government overreach, something democracies can do without. Let’s assume these firms are indeed biased. But they own the platforms and have the right to make the rules. The unhappy user can leave and make their business suffer. That is the real problem, the fact that Facebook and Twitter are monopolies, and silenced voices hardly have any other outlet currently. Monopoly is the true danger to freedom of expression. The US government has initiated anti-trust investigations against Big Tech, which could ultimately lead to the breaking up of some giants. Competition and market dynamics will automatically take care of ideological skews, which is much better than governments enforcing “neutrality".

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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