Let us take stock of how the private companies that manage two of the largest communication platforms in the world—Facebook and Twitter—have managed people's speech in the last week alone:
Rapper Lil B was temporarily banned from Facebook for "hate speech" after calling out gun-loving white people (calling them "violent") in the wake of a deadly shooting in Las Vegas committed by a white retiree; actress Rose McGowan was briefly suspended from Twitter after speaking out about those who enabled her own abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein; and Twitter first blocked but then allowed US congresswoman Marsha Blackburn to run an ad promoting a far-right conspiracy theory about Planned Parenthood selling baby body parts, which has been thoroughly debunked.
Add this all to the ongoing trainwreck regarding possible election interference on Facebook (a byproduct of the company running ads from essentially anyone who can pay and relying largely on user reports to weed out the bad), and it's very clear that there is a serious problem with how private corporations manage public speech. Namely, the corporations in charge of the largest speech platforms on Earth have utterly failed to manage speech on those platforms, and increasingly seem incapable of doing so.
The actions that Facebook and Twitter take to police speech don't follow any kind of moral compass, are disproportionately applied, and—at least outwardly—seem completely arbitrary. They are full of false equivalences, as in the case of Lil B being banned because, as one Facebook spokesperson told Motherboard, if you flipped his comment around to say black people are violent that would be hateful: "If you just took a step back and replaced it with anything else, those are the type of things that our hate speech policies are intended to capture and they apply equally to all races," the spokesperson said. As if these same platforms aren't full of white people, often with connections to power, saying racist, harmful, hateful things with impunity.
These companies' actions are also often arbitrary and callous, as is the case with Facebook's ongoing campaign to force trans people to use their legal names, a policy that also puts sex workers and survivors of abuse at risk.
Every piece of content on their platforms is monetizable and they are managing customers, not citizens
Hate speech policies that were ostensibly developed to protect the marginalized—and were formed to quell a PR crisis about targeted harassment campaigns by groups like GamerGate and the alt-right—end up harming them. People of colour, trans people, women, and other marginalized groups continue to be harassed, and now risk being censored when they speak about it. Facebook and Twitter have shown themselves to be totally incapable of helping them beyond sharing marketing platitudes. For example, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Axios on Thursday morning, "The thing about free expression is that when you allow free expression, you allow free expression." Twitter co-founder Biz Stone responded to criticism regarding the site's tolerance for abuse by arguing in his mentions with victims, and then signing off with, "We are united in using Twitter together."
Facebook and Twitter are private companies with for-profit motives. Every piece of content on their platforms is monetizable and they are managing customers, not citizens. The current crises of fake news, political ads, and the constant and unhindered harassment of marginalized groups are all the byproducts of Facebook and Twitter playing Monopoly with our information.
It's discourse by market demand
Despite Facebook's recent attempts to address the issue under government pressure, the Russian ad problem is not a bug, it's a feature. It's discourse by market demand. The health or quality of speech matters only insofar as it is a value-proposition. Facebook and Twitter both got government exemptions from advertising rules that require the disclosure of sponsorship—why? So they could take all comers, consequences be damned.
One of the worst examples of this tendency was exposed by ProPublica in a June report on internal Facebook documents. These documents showed that during the Arab Spring uprisings, the company actually blocked posts by activists and tended to side with elites in moderating content. "In so doing," ProPublica noted, "they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens." Facebook also has hundreds of elaborate rules around hate speech, ProPublica noted, that in the end result in white men being a protected group.
By segmenting its customers into thousands of different categories, Facebook allows advertisers to get more bang for their buck because their message isn't being wasted on people who aren't receptive. As a result, Facebook (and Google) have captured 85 percent of new ad dollars spent on the internet and this number is rising. Hateful people get hateful advertising, and the rest of us remain none the wiser.
For all of Silicon Valley's pretensions of being arbiters of free speech, these companies are fundamentally incapable of shaping a healthy public discourse. Making tough decisions, unfortunately, isn't always good for business.
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