by Lydia Switzer
The 45th president of the United States is permanently banned from Twitter.
Twitter’s suspension of former President Donald Trump was fuel for the fire of outrage surrounding tech companies’ alleged censorship of conservative voices. Banning accounts, demonetizing videos, and suppressing entire news stories are all ways in which tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google (through YouTube) interfere with information online.
Political conservatives in particular have argued that this constitutes an assault on their speech and is damaging to democracy. Dr. Mark Caleb Smith is the professor of political science at Cedarville University.
He said, “In conservative circles there’s always been kind of the assumption that the media are out to get conservatives. I think most people just kind of assume the social media platforms are neutral observers…because generally that’s how most of us interact with them.”
The vast majority of people on social media use social media without inhibition. Recent events, however, such as Twitter banning former President Trump, have brought anti-conservative bias in the media to the forefront of political discussion.
Social media has the ability to shape the information that is presented on their platform. This may result in unequal standards for their users. However, this is similiar to how traditional media has always operated.
Smith said. “Newspapers, television outlets, any kind of media outlet that filters information is going to make editorial judgments. There’s really no way around that.”
But what does the Constitution have to say about online speech? More accurately, how do the principles of free speech that we find in the First Amendment apply to speech online and on social media?
According to John Hart, lawyer for Cedarville University, the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of speech is a protection against government. Without a compelling reason for doing so, the government may not restrict speech. Since social media isn’t a public agency, users of social media don’t have unrestricted speech protection.
“It is not a violation of First Amendment rights to have a social media platform limit your access or take down your posts or even freeze you out of the site altogether,” Smith said.
This means that social media companies are constitutionally free to suppress, ban, or otherwise regulate any material that is presented through their platform. Those who sign up for social media are implicitly or explicitly agreeing to that company’s terms of service, and are subject to any regulatory or disciplinary actions taken by that company.
Hart likened these terms of service agreements to the agreements that students and faculty at Cedarville University must sign to be part of the univesrity. Cedarville is able to require certain behavior from those who willingly agree to its rules. Similarly, tech companies may require certain behavior from those who willingly sign up for social media – there can be consequences if you do not abide by that behavior.
Does anything change when considering the usage of social media by public figures? Is it acceptable that a former president of the United States has been permanently prevented from using Twitter as a platform?
Smith would say yes, it is acceptable.
“The president may have actually fewer rights than the average citizen when it comes to his use of social media,” Smith said, pointing out that the president may not block people or delete posts.
Twitter laid out its standards and according to these terms President Trump violated those standards and could be removed from the platform.
This, however, doesn’t mean that tech companies and social media are always correct or consistent in how they apply those standards.
“If we’re honest about it, the left controls most of the heights in our culture,” Smith said, noting that the left is influential in most media outlets, educational institutions, social media, and Silicon Valley.
The domination of one ideology in several American institutions has led many on the right to seek recourse elsewhere. For example, popular political commentator, Steven Crowder, has sued Facebook for removing his videos and livestreams, allegedly without sufficient justification. Hart clarified that Crowder may have a legal case against Facebook, but that case is based on Facebook misapplying its own standards, not on the First Amendment.
Another remedy that has been proposed by politicians and activists on both sides of the political aisle is repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 removes liability from online platforms for material posted on their site, meaning, for example, Twitter cannot be sued for something that a person tweeted. It also gives those platforms the ability to filter content, such as pornographic or violent material.
However, repealing Section 230 would not necessarily be beneficial in the way that it is intended.
Smith said. “I think the real danger in reforming it is, you’re potentially shackling the most vibrant and maybe even the most profitable part of our economy.”
There would likely be significant economic consequences to slapping restrictions on one of the U.S. economy’s golden geese.
If not repealing Section 230, are there other government actions that could provide a solution to big tech inconsistency? Smith isn’t so sure.
“I do think the tech companies would be very wise to try to at least put more safeguards in place to make sure they’re just not making these choices based on purely ideology,” Smith said. “I’m not sure that’s best to come from the government.”
However, through all the political turmoil and division surrounding us, we can still use whatever online influence we have to reflect Christ.
“It’d be nice if Christians could be a positive influence on social media…in a way that suggests we’re different,” Smith said. “Scripture tells us that we’ll be known by our love for one another, and even on social media, we don’t love each other very well.”
Lydia Switzer is a junior Political Science major and a captain for Cedarville’s debate team. She enjoys drinking coffee, going for walks on spring days, and constitutional law.