Is Freedom Of Speech Over On Social Media?

So much has happened on social media in recent months that’s it’s hard to know where to start. Tech giants are removing, censoring and preventing content from being shared. Important dialogue, from COVID-19 to the US elections have been heavily monitored. And with big tech controlling dialogue and removing apps, it’s important to ask – is freedom of speech over on social media? Let’s take a closer look.

Before we get into this, to be clear, I certainly don’t advocate freedom of hate speech, racism, homophobia, sexism or any other violation or incitement. The issue we are discussing centres more around social media’s increasing control over opinions, sources and dialogue. It references the unpleasant “cancel culture” trend whereby individuals, groups and pages can be shut down or erased. In many cases simply for stating their position on issues surrounding lockdowns, vaccines or presidents.

You Can’t Say That! What’s Going Down on the Networks?

With popular platforms like Twitter and Facebook honing their propriety “misinformation” tools and upping their fact-checking initiatives, it’s clear you can’t say what you want on many of the social sites. Social media platforms are private companies after all and can therefore legally censor and remove information.  So, what’s been happening?

Fight against COVID “misinformation”

Since the start of the pandemic, Facebook has taken down millions of posts pushing what they claim to be COVID-19 misinformation. Censorship was put into place in an attempt to combat the spread of so-called dangerous information about the virus. The problem is, many of the posts flagged as misinformation, simply weren’t.

Here’s an example. Dr Geert Vanden Bossche. An impressive CV in the field of vaccines with extensive experience – interestingly as a pro vaccine advocate. Everything about Dr Geert is factual and checks out. So then why are the fact checkers so quick to flag any posts mentioning him? Do they know more than a Dr who specialises in vaccines? Or could it be that they are not unbiased at all given that Facebook fact checkers are financed by George Soros, Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, amongst others. This is fact.

Regardless of your view, surely it can be agreed that silencing dialogue cannot be a positive thing?

In 2020, Facebook announced that, ‘People will receive a notification that says we’ve removed a post they’ve interacted with for violating our policy against misinformation about COVID-19 that leads to imminent physical harm.’ The network continued, ‘They will also see why it was false and why we removed it (for example, the post included the false claim that COVID-19 doesn’t exist).’

Facebook then upped their censorship game once again at the start of 2021 with a blog announcement that read:

‘Today, we are expanding our efforts to remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines and vaccines in general during the pandemic. Since December, we’ve removed false claims about COVID-19 vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts. Today, following consultations with leading health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), we are expanding the list of false claims we will remove to include additional debunked claims about the coronavirus and vaccines.”

This includes claims such as:

  • COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured
  • Vaccines are not effective at preventing the disease they are meant to protect against
  • It’s safer to get the disease than to get the vaccine
  • Vaccines are toxic, dangerous or cause autism

Platforms like Twitter also took a similar stance stating the platform would not allow any tweets about COVID-19 that were ‘claims of fact, demonstrably false or misleading and likely to cause harm. It added that accounts that repeatedly broke this rule would be permanently removed which is what happened to so-called British conspiracy theorist David Icke in November 2020.

More recently, Facebook announced it will increase the penalties against its rule-breaking Facebook Groups and their members, alongside other changes designed to reduce the visibility of groups’ potentially harmful content. The company says it will now remove civic and political groups from its recommendations in markets outside the U.S. and will further restrict the reach of groups and members who continue to violate its rules. But here’s the problem. What is dangerous content and who are the fact checkers?

Trump Suspended from Twitter and Facebook

Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter, Snapchat and Twitch following an invasion of the US Capitol building. It was claimed Trump had incited violence on social media by messaging protestors to say, ‘I love you’ before calling on protesters to disperse while also doubling down on false claims of election fraud.

Of course, the Trump ban rapidly sparked debate about the nature of free speech on the internet. Critics of the former president’s banishment say it infringes on the First Amendment and amounts to censorship. Supporters, meanwhile, generally think of Facebook’s muting of Trump as a necessary action against hate speech and misinformation online. And to many, this prompt action is overdue, coming only after Tump spent almost the entirety of his four years in office sowing discontent and spreading ‘toxic’ content.

Facebook itself has also been battling with internal issues of trying to maintain free speech without ‘misinformation’ and bad behaviour getting out of control. Zuckerberg has long championed Facebook as being a platform of free expression which could explain why the network refused to make any further decisions about Trump re-joining the platform themselves. Facebook instead asked the Oversight Board it created to make this call. The Oversight Board is an independent entity comprised of 20 experts from across the globe and is funded by Facebook. It’s specifically designed to handle high-profile cases and take pressure directly off Facebook. Trump is currently appealing his ban.

Political Censorship

Widespread political censorship is not uncommon on social networks either. Within hours of the publication of a New York Post article on October 14, Twitter users were prevented from sharing it, with a message claiming the link could be harmful. The story featured a dubious expose of emails supposedly from the laptop of Hunter Biden, son of the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden – now president of the US. Many Facebook users were unable to see the story at all while its fact-checkers reviewed it.

This again brought up many issues regarding political censorship and the morality of fact-checking content from well-known news sources.

The Rise of Free Speech Networks

Delete Facebook campaigns aren’t new. But they’ve been accelerated recently due to the network’s decision to block the sharing of Australian news, preventing the public from accessing information on government health, emergency service sites, charities and small business. This, coupled with all the censorship and free speech issues raised above, has driven people in search of free speech networks. So, what’s the latest?

Parler Grows in Popularity

Parler is a social network that mimics Twitter. Described as ‘the world’s town square’ Parler gives people the chance to ‘speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘de-platformed’ for your views. Engage with real people, not bots. Parler is people and privacy focused and gives you the tools you need to curate your Parler experience.’

Parler also emphasises the fact that data is kept confidential and never sold to third parties which is a direct hit to Facebook in light of recent data breeches. That said, the platform was subsequently hacked exposing user details to the world. Offering a fully customised experience, the platform allows you to follow your favourite public figures, brands, family and friends. It also allows you to moderate your own feed using a robust set of tools and has proved popular with people banned from Twitter. The app briefly became the most-downloaded app in the United States after the US election, following a clampdown on the spread of election misinformation by Twitter and Facebook. It also attracted notable people with Texas Senator Ted Crus boasting 4.9 million followers and Fox News host Sean Hannity boasting over 7 million.

In a move that raised eyebrows and re-surfaced the issues of big tech censorship, Google has since suspended downloads from its Play Store over Parler’s failure to remove ‘egregious content.’ This was followed by Apple. A spokesman for Google said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.”

Amazon also suspended the platform from its cloud-hosting services for allowing ‘threats of violence.’ This led to Parler rapidly searching for a new host and CEO John Matze accusing the tech giants of starting a war on free speech. He stated, “They will NOT win! We are the world’s last hope for free speech and free information.”

Gab Users Increase

At the start of 2021, freedom of speech champions Gab claimed to gain 10,000 new users per hour. This followed increased censorship from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and Parler being booted offline. Despite being banned by more than 25 service providers and rejected from both Apple and Google app stores for violating hate-speech policies, Gab reported massive growth.

The layout of Gab is similar to Twitter. It displays trending posts in the centre, aggregated news on the right, and a menu and explore section on the left. In October 2018, Vox reported that Gab had between 465,000 and 800,000 users. By April 2020, the site had over 1.1 million new cumulative registered accounts and 3.7 million monthly visitors worldwide, Fox Business reported. Such growth seems to suggest that the increased platform censorship is driving people to find new social networking outlets that promote free speech.

The Rise of MeWe

Following Facebook’s decision to block the phrase “stop the steal”, a rallying cry for many Trump supporters who believe that Joe Biden fraudulently won the US presidential election, platforms like MeWe have seen a considerably rise in users. The platform’s membership has apparently grown to roughly 15 million with an increase of 9,500 daily downloads in the days leading up violence at Capitol Hill.

MeWe is a paid-for social media site with no adverts, priced at approximately £5 per month, although it does allow users to sign-up for free. In exchange, users get a similar functionality to that on Facebook: access to groups and a messaging client, pages, a network of friends, and more. It has distinctive differences from Facebook, however. For example, MeWe does not collect data on users. It also features a Privacy Bill of Right which states that it will not change the news feed algorithmically or use facial recognition technology.

While MeWe does not guarantee freedom of consequences should a user post something harmful, the social media site does not have policies banning misinformation or fake news with many people using it to promote their right to free speech.  According to platform representatives, “We have absolutely no censorship for good people who follow our rules. We don’t care what your opinion is, if you’re on the right, or the left. That’s none of our business.” However, users will be banned if they:

  • Violate any law or regulation.
  • Stalk, harass, bully, intimidate, or harm another user.
  • Post unlawful, harmful, obscene, or pornographic content.
  • Impersonate someone.
  • Post content that is hateful, threatening, harmful, incites violence; or contains graphic or gratuitous violence.
  • Use MeWe to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory

Launch of New Platforms

While free speech platforms such as Gab have been around for years and grown in popularity due to the freedom of speech issues, others have popped up recently. This includes social networking platforms like Yauped which claim to ‘set you free from all other significant tech platforms’ dangers.’ Yauped was built out of a respect for free speech and includes all the features associated with social networking including profiles, groups, events, marketplace, chat features and more.

One of the main Yauped social networking highlights mentioned in promotional material includes ‘the true freedom of individuality and freedom of expression.’

Freedom of speech and censorship issues are huge at the moment. Do you think platforms should monitor and remove content and users? Or is it a step too far in an increasingly Orwellian Handmaids Tale- esque landscape? Tweet me and let me know your thoughts @Charli_Says.