Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Control of public square by social media troubling


May 15, 2019

Most rational people could quickly stipulate Alex Jones is a conspiracy nut, Milo Yianopolous is a provocateur who solicited neo-Nazi and white supremacist figures for feedback and story ideas and Louis Farrakhan has a history of anti-Semitism as a minister who heads the religious group Nation of Islam.

And rational people could also quickly agree banning them on social media sites really doesn’t damage public discourse one bit.

As private entities, Facebook and Twitter can make the case they have the right to decide who can and can’t be on their platforms.

But take a step back and ask if it’s troubling that conglomerates like Facebook and Twitter now, in effect, control the public square, taking on the role of thought police and the ability to block any form of speech from people they deem purveyors of hate or in violation of whatever rules they come up with.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, says we need a discussion about the power to ban.

“Facebook has its own First Amendment rights,” Jaffer said in a recent interview with Recode Decode. “It expresses them by ejecting Alex Jones from the platform. I think none of that would raise difficult questions if it weren’t for Facebook’s scale. It’s the fact that Facebook is so big” that it arguably controls the public square.

“That’s when I think free speech advocates start to get nervous about Facebook excluding people from the platform, especially when there’s an argument that they’re excluding people on the basis of viewpoint.

“You can think whatever you want about Alex Jones, but I worry not about Alex Jones, but about the next person or the next year. Who is it that Facebook is going to be excluding next year?”

Jaffer, who during his time as a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union took on the Bush administration to force the release of the “torture” memos dealing with prisoners in U.S. custody and later challenged some of the government’s surveillance programs, has pointed out that the courts have been reluctant to give government the power to prohibit speech because of the difficulty in deciding what should be banned.

So what, he has asked, would make Facebook any better qualified?

It’s a slippery slope. Some could argue President Trump’s Twitter account should be locked — as happened to conservative Hollywood actor James Woods last week. Or, perhaps one could argue people closely associated with Black Lives Matter should be banned from Facebook — “Whatta we want? Dead cops. When do we want em? Now.”

The Albuquerque Journal, of course, edits some submissions and rejects others based on content. But authors aren’t banished per se, and rejecting a letter is hardly the equivalent of a global ban on Facebook or Twitter.

Big Brother protagonist Winston Smith in George Orwell’s disturbingly prescient novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” worked as an editor in the Ministry of Truth, where one of his duties was to purge “unpersons” from history. “Unpersons” were people not just vaporized by the forces of Big Brother but who needed to disappear in every way from the collective memory.

The First Amendment has guaranteed government can’t have that power. We should think long and hard about whether we want Facebook, Twitter and other such platforms to become today’s equivalent of a private-sector Ministry of Truth with the ability to designate certain people as “unpersons” for purposes of the public square.

That power bothers Jameel Jaffer, and it should bother us all.

— Albuquerque Journal


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