For years, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have been trying to answer a question: what responsibility do they really have to meet the public’s own definition of free speech?
Here in the U.S., we generally think of “freedom of speech” to mean the right to express opinions. But what happens when those opinions – including the data used to presumably support those statements – are offensive or have the potential to harm others?
It’s worth noting that not all countries agree that the right to express opinion is the same as the right to post material without limitations. Germany’s restrictions on Holocaust denial and the EU’s recent battles over hate speech are good examples of bars that have been deliberately set by countries, ostensibly in the protection of others. They underscore the concept that freedom of speech in any venue can come with consequences.
Still, it’s a question that while there are lots of legal precedents in workplaces across the U.S., has largely been left to the purview of social media companies to answer – and answer on their own.
In the last few weeks a number of social media outlets have stepped up to take action on that issue. Or, that is, they have in relation to one highly controversial public figure and his website. After viewers began complaining about the material that was being circulated by Infowars’ website owner Alex Jones, a number of social media companies took action, banning Jones and his program from accessing their sites.
Only one company eventually rescinded the ban. Twitter, after a “temporary suspension” of one week, lifted the limitation and reversed its assertion that Jones had violated the company’s standards of conduct.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later defended the reversal in several media interviews. His defense was that the company could not find evidence that Infowars or its spokesperson had broken any specific rule when it published statements asserting, among other things, that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax.
For Dorsey, the fact that Jones’ statements are now the subject of a lawsuit by the families of the children and an FBI agent that were killed in the shooting was not material enough to consider that its standards may not match the public’s acceptance of what is free speech.
The legal complaint against Jones suggests that fact wasn’t an issue for Jones; he knew his statements were erroneous. Profit and viewership were the key motivators in this case.
“The Jones defendants concoct elaborate and false paranoia-tinged conspiracy theories because it moves product and they make money," the suit alleges. "Not because they truly believe what they are saying, but rather because it increases profits."
But is that enough of a reason to call Jones’ words “hate speech?” And is it enough to ban Jones for making assertions that could incentivize hate toward others?
Or does Twitter, and other social media organizations, have a responsibility to monitor issues of truth and fact on the pretext that false assertions can eventually cause hate, discrimination and foment violence?
For Dorsey, who has tried hard to defend the need for a “healthy conversational environment” from all sides, the argument that asserting false narratives that aren’t backed up by authoritative data don’t violate Twitter’s standards may be a slippery slope.
Like Facebook, Twitter is fueled by user trust. And it’s fueled by the assumption that wild assertions made by one user won’t incentivize hate toward another.
Most companies these days monitor employee (and customer) conduct as a barometer of broader, potential problems. And what we often forget is that those standards grew out of a convergence of public pressure and legal rulings in the 1950s, 60s and 70s that made it necessary to set standards – including to increase diversity or against statements viewed as harassment toward a group or a person. But today it’s pretty much assumed that a person who can definitively show proof that wild rumors or widely circulated falsehoods were, or caused harassment may well have the chance of a case in court.
Of course, this tug of war between social media sites and Infowars supporters isn’t yet over. Facebook, Google and Apple have been accused by InfoWars viewers of trying to silent conservative voices. And while there’s data that shows that Facebook’s community standards have not been exclusively applied to conservative users, the question of whether conservatives are losing access to the world’s biggest podium is now fodder for the Trump administration.
And this may be part of the reason why Twitter is reluctant to ban Jones: because in creating standards that require accuracy in statement and recognize the potential for harm from falsehoods about others, Dorsey subjects his company to the headache of monitoring the accuracy of the Trump administration's official tweets, something that a plethora of companies and organizations, except for Twitter, are already publishing.
It will be interesting to see how Dorsey's decision not to impose further sanctions against Alex Jones and Infowars plays out. If Facebook's experiences with controversial decisions and user dissatisfaction is anything to go by, Twitter may not be done writing its rules on user conduct.
Image credit: JD Lasica/Flickr
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.