All of which complicates the situation for the big internet companies. Over the past 10 years, free speech has undergone a radical change in practice. Now nearly all significant speech runs through a corporate platform, be it a large hosting provider, WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter. Speech may be free by law, but attention is part of an economy. Every heinous crime linked to an app or website tests the fragile new understanding that tech companies have of their relationship to speech.
Tech-company employees like to say things like “Do you want Mark Zuckerberg being the arbiter of what speech is allowed on Facebook?” as if that is not already the case, or that is not exactly what Facebook signed up to do when it attempted to “rewire the way people spread and consume information,” as Zuckerberg put it in his letter to shareholders in 2012.
David Frum: America’s fatal shame
During the past couple of years, big platforms like Facebook have come to understand that violent rhetoric is a danger to their business. Zuckerberg has vowed to “take down threats of physical harm,” specifically those related to white-supremacist violence.
In some areas, such as terrorist posts, the companies take automatic and proactive steps to keep these ideas from reaching an audience. But by and large, they’ve developed rules for judging content based on what users report to them.
On paper, these rules tend to look pretty good. They are written by smart people who routinely encounter the problem of regulating billions of people’s speech, and who have thought hard about it.
But seemingly anytime someone has a reason to look closely at the posts of individual users who turn violent, it is plain to see that all kinds of violent posts make it through the systems that Facebook, Twitter, and others have set up. Report anti-Semitism or rank racism or death threats or rape GIFs sent to women, and disturbingly often, things that appear to be clear violations of a company’s policies will not be seen that way by content moderators. Mistakes are made—no one knows how many—and it’s easy to blame the operations of these companies.
But the problem goes deeper. Internet trolls have developed a politics native to these platforms that uses their fake democratic principles against them. “These fringe groups saw an opportunity in the gap between the platforms’ strained public dedication to discourse stewardship and their actual existence as profit-driven entities, free to do as they please,” John Herrman wrote in 2017.
Right-wing critics of the platforms find themselves hamstrung because, generally speaking, they don’t want mandates for companies. As The Daily Caller put it, “Of course, Twitter is a private company, free to do as it pleases, even if it serves to please some and displease others.” There is no public platform; every place where speech circulates depends on private companies. So calls of censorship are toothless unless people leave the platform (which they don’t in significant numbers) or advertisers pull their money (which they wouldn’t over the desires of neo-Nazis or anti-Semites).