Telephone… Radio… Television… The internet.. The printing press… Papyrus
Throughout history, whenever a new medium of communication emerges, many people, including many government officials, get highly anxious about the new power and the purported new dangers and evils it brings along.
With the increasing impact of social media, there are eruptions of fear and outburst of terror about the new power to disseminate information and the potential harm that information and disinformation may cause.
Today's social media platforms present the same difficulties that we've been dealing with regard to older media.
The social impact of big tech is at an all-time high and so is the censorship of content on these platforms.
As the power of the common person waned, the power of the Big Tech grew - power over attention, over time, over users’ judgment, and eventually power over their speech.
Censorship is a problem that has managed to visit every corner of history, from ancient civilizations to modern governments and major social media platforms.
Today, as we share, discuss, promote, and critique ideas online, this has become a pressing issue.
Big digital corporations restrict and erase information relating to direct incitement of violence or other crimes like child exploitation and terrorists slaughtering their victims, which is a beneficial move because these are clear-cut issues that are downright dangerous.
However, there is little transparency about Youtube's policy when it comes to cracking down on content that spreads disinformation. Under this policy, YouTube eliminates or demonetises content skeptical of vaccinations and climate change. While this may be of public interest, it highlights the larger question of the powers that large tech corporations wield and their ability to shape public narratives as they see fit.
It makes one wonder whether these actions are actually based on facts or just opinions being protected. It's also worth noting that many people rely on their internet presence for a living. If YouTube mistakenly demonetized a channel for spreading misleading material, a person's whole source of revenue might be shut off.
This is what happens when one man’s moderation becomes another’s suppression. Free speech is a notion that has been enshrined in institutions but online it is the big tech platforms themselves which are the government, the police, and the court. They set their own guidelines for what individuals are permitted to say and post.
For all the potential harm that various types of online communications, such as disinformation, fake news, political ads, and so on, can cause, far more harm is done when we empower these largely unaccountable private sector really powerful entities to pick and choose what expression is aired and what is not. And the threat is amplified when it comes to political discussion. The supreme court has constantly stated throughout history that of all the expressions that are significant in our form of governance, speech about public affairs and politics, is by far the most important.
"We, the people" to quote the opening words of our constitution, wield sovereign power but how can we do so responsibly or effectively if we don't have full access to information on individuals standing for office? Those who are attempting to get our votes? Who are the decision-makers in public policy?
Most of the time, when individuals push for censorship, they usually talk about the harm that speech may cause, whether it's disinformation/fake news, hate speech, or terrorist material. And, yes, I certainly agree that speech has immense potential to do harm but at the same time, it also has an enormous capacity to do well too. We protect it precisely because it is so powerful. However, the debate almost always begins and ends with the potential harm to free speech. Those who advocate censorship never consider if it will actually be beneficial in resolving, redressing, and minimizing the harm. They never address whether censorship is going to do more harm than good and in every case that I'm aware of, censorship has been ineffective in resolving the problems at stake.
So, are we going to suggest that allowing Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley billionaires to judge whether or not certain speech is true would solve our political problems? That, in my opinion, is just as dangerous to democracy as it is to individual liberty.
No two individuals can agree on intrinsically subjective ideas. They are bound to have conflicting opinions and so, those in positions of power will wield their discretion in ways that will perpetuate their authority rather than empower those who have been silenced or excluded in the past.
Tech giants being allowed to be the judge for what is right and what is wrong, what is fact and what is misinformation is under critical failure which has led to the control the big tech has over the world today.
Facebook sought the assistance of Snopes, a reputable and well-respected fact-checking organization, to combat disinformation on the platform.
The result was that Snopes was pulled out of the operation since fact-checking would require them to go against their employer. This case highlights the validity and credibility of the fact checks performed by the social media networks. Most of which are simply tools to further their own agendas and achieve their personal objectives.
In conclusion, since disinformation is much worse than no information at all, tech companies should be allowed to wield certain power over online speech to combat factual ambiguity, but it should certainly not be done in the manner that it is being done today.
Finally, I believe it's critical for us to maintain historical humility and not see what we're going through today as fundamentally different and more dangerous than in the past. I believe that the same fundamental rules that apply to other forms of media should also apply to social media.