Twitter and Facebook’s Censorship Double Standard
Authored by Amy Peikoff and Jeffrey Wernick
“Mr. Dorsey, do you believe everything you read?”
“I think it’s healthy to have skepticism about everything and to have a mindset of verifying it and of using as much information as possible to do so.”
“Do you have somebody on your staff who protects you from reading things that they think you shouldn’t?”
“Mr. Zuckerberg, do you believe everything you read?”
“Because a lot of things are incomplete or incorrect.”
“So you exercise your own judgment?”
“Do you have somebody on your staff whose job is to filter things that they think you should not be reading?”
So began Senator John Kennedy’s Socratic line of questioning to Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. It was Socratic not only in style, but also because Kennedy said he was exploring a viewpoint with which he didn’t necessarily agree, but which he considered legitimate. It was also one with which Socrates would agree:
“You have both Democrats and Republicans upset with you. The Democrats are upset with you, this point of view holds, because they want you…to publish stuff on your platforms that they agree with, but [not] stuff that they disagree with. And [it] also holds that the Republicans are upset with you because they want you to publish things on your platforms that they agree with, but [not] that they disagree with.”
“What if your companies had a rule that said, ‘Ok, people aren’t morons. I would like to treat people as they treat me. That is, I can read what I want to read, and exercise my own good judgment about whether I choose to believe it.’ … ‘If you go on Twitter or Facebook, you can’t bully people. You can’t threaten people.’ … ‘You can’t commit a crime with your words. And you can’t incite violence. But other than that, you can print any damn thing you want to. And we’ll let our users judge.’ Give me your thoughts on that.”
Dorsey: “Those are generally the rules we have.”
As Kennedy interjected, this isn’t true, unless you are generous about what “generally” means. But to Dorsey’s credit, he latched onto Kennedy’s use of the word “bullying” and added “harassment.” It is terms like these, which do not refer to objectively identifiable rights violations, which permit bias-inviting discretion to affect content curation.
“Why not have Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump say whatever they want to on your platform,” Kennedy continued, “so long as they don’t threaten, bully, incite violence or commit a crime?”
[Turning to Zuckerberg] “Mr. Zuckerberg, what are your thoughts on my suggestion?”
“Senator, in principle I agree … although I think that there are more categories of harm than just the ones that you have mentioned. … For example, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we’ve assessed that misinformation about COVID and treatments…could cause imminent harm.”
Although Zuckerberg made point more abstractly, the answer is the same: in expanding the kinds of “harm” to be prohibited in a set of guidelines, to go beyond actual rights violations—which means, initiation of force—you invite discretion, and therefore personal bias, to enter into the equation.
Kennedy went on to say that, if companies removed content from their platforms beyond the types he listed, they should be treated as publishers under Section 230. The truth is likely more nuanced; see what Justice Clarence Thomas said about it recently here.
Kennedy continued: “One point of view is that, at some point, we’ve got to trust people to use their own good judgment to decide what they choose to believe and not believe. And not try to assume that we’re smart and they’re stupid. And that we can discern believable information and information that shouldn’t be believed, but everybody else is too stupid to do it.”
Why have we ‘got to’? Because it’s not actually possible to outsource critical thinking to someone else, not if you want to actually understand the truth. Our critical thinking skills, like our athletic ability, are a “use it or lose it” proposition, and any systematic crutch masquerading as “social” media, should be shunned.
A second, related “use it or lose it” proposition is the ability to solve pervasive problems in an industry in the traditionally American way: by giving one’s business to an emerging competitor.
Kennedy stated early in his remarks, “You’re not companies; you’re countries.” Not yet, thankfully! But they will be if government regulation—whether sooner or later—turns social media companies into de facto government agencies. Will people choose, while they still can, to give their business to a platform which respects their privacy, and treats them as human beings who can think for themselves? We hope so.