Freedom of speech has been one of the most prized treasures of our great American experiment. Freedom to congregate, to speak, to participate in meaningful, though sometimes contentious discourse has traditionally been in person, in places of worship or community centers, town halls or the town square. It has been a tangible, palpable experience because we made eye contact, held each other accountable, hashed things out in person in real time—not facelessly behind a keyboard or a cellphone.
The internet increasingly seems to be the dominant “place” to assemble and discuss the important issues of the day. Whether it is “speaking” with friends who live far away, or gathering online to take up an important cause, or to have intercourse with hidden keyboard warriors on social media platforms—we are seeing undeniable evidence of censorship in our shared internet “spaces.”
An impulsive or measured press of a button on a keyboard can easily alter our discourse and our power to engage in meaningful conversation. Daily, we see platforms removed, citizens and influencers silenced, audiences dramatically reduced and the ability to “gather virtually” completely shut down or banned—with very limited power to appeal.
Yesterday, Facebook, a platform with gigantic influence and reach, banned a huge grassroots group called “Stop the Steal“ that had amassed around 365,000 supporters almost overnight. The group was formed within a 24-hour period to support a fair and legal ballot counting process.
According to the Epoch Times, Facebook claimed the group’s “members made calls for violence and sought to delegitimize the election process.” It also reported that the group’s founder called the ban excessive and defended the group as giving a voice to Americans who are concerned about the vote counting process.
Facebook justified the ban with its stated election 2020 policies. With regard to the Facebook group, Facebook applied the following rationale:
“In line with the exceptional measures that we are taking during this period of heightened tension, we have removed the group ‘Stop the Steal,’ which was creating real-world events,’ Facebook said in a statement. ‘The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group.”
Through a series of tweets posted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a number of screen captures were circulated that appeared to call for violence. Most of the posts, however, seemed to be legitimate calls for peaceful, lawful activism.
.@Facebook is hosting a "Stop the Steal" group run by figures close to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
It is calling on 300,000 members to protest at vote counts and contains calls for violence.
It has to be shut down. pic.twitter.com/on308Xvze4
— Center for Countering Digital Hate (@CCDHate) November 5, 2020
The irony is that similar groups organizing Antifa violence are allowed to remain on social media platforms in many cases.
— Filler PGH (@PghAutonomy) September 19, 2020
“Death to America”
Portland antifa group Youth Liberation Front has announced their plans for Wednesday: pic.twitter.com/GWnR0YZetB
— Andy Ngô (@MrAndyNgo) November 4, 2020
The administrator for the “Stop the Steal” Facebook group maintains that it was unnecessary to ban the entire group because of a few posts that failed to follow its rules.
Kylie Jane Kremer, Executive Director of Women for America First and founder of Stop the Steal, told The Epoch Times that group moderators “did everything [they] could” to ensure members abided by Facebook’s terms of service.” She also added that “Facebook could have flagged or deleted comments that they believed violated their terms of service or they could have notified us. Instead, they chose to simply shut down the entire group.” Kremer also mentioned that Facebook had not de-platformed “groups like Shut Down DC which are currently claiming the GOP is trying to steal the election.”
In addition, censorship is making it much more difficult to access or share essential and factual information. Twitter has censored many tweets sent by President Trump and his campaign. In terms of the Presidential tweets, Conservatives are not the only ones who are upset with the censoring. The following is a tweet by a journalist who is no fan of the President and even people who are quote-tweeting the President are censored. And Facebook hasn’t been any better.
It also does not seem to be equally applied to former VP Joe Biden’s communications. In addition, many high-profile people are being banned across multiple social media platforms.
And, as of Jan. 20, 2021, Business Insider reports that Twitter will no longer give “protected status” to President Trump’s Twitter account. Twitter stated, “If he no longer holds the office, Trump will not be protected by the “world leader” Twitter exemption and may face more strict Twitter regulation for misinformation or incitement, including outright suspension or removal.” One can argue that he may not be as protected if he no longer holds office but that still doesn’t mean he shouldn’t enjoy the protections afforded to citizens of the United States of America by the First Amendment.
— Jim Hoft (@gatewaypundit) November 6, 2020
There has been ongoing and heated discussion around Section 230—a law that has heretofore protected online platforms from lawsuits for censorship. Attorney General William Barr stated in his announcement in mid-February of 2020, “For too long Section 230 has provided a shield for online platforms to operate with impunity. Ensuring that the internet is a safe, but also vibrant, open, and competitive environment is vitally important to America. We, therefore, urge Congress to make these necessary reforms to Section 230 and begin to hold online platforms accountable both when they unlawfully censor speech and when they knowingly facilitate criminal activity online.”
A short essay well worth reading by Wencong Fa for the Pacific Legal Foundation called “Remembering Why Free Speech is Important,” goes to the heart of why free speech dictates how free a country really is and how well Americans understand its value.
“In a free society, all citizens must be able to pursue their own paths, set their own goals, and think for themselves . . . America offers a richer tradition,” writes Fa. People are free to express their ideas, even if those ideas are unpopular, unconventional, or wrong (though, in many cases, they may eventually be proven right). Americans are thus free to participate in peaceful protests, wear black armbands to school, and even burn the nation’s flag. A speaker may say things that are unpopular, uncomfortable, or downright grotesque. But in a free society, we engage dissent through discussion and debate rather than through censorship and punishment.
Contentious debate and criticism of prevailing norms are often ways we arrive at better solutions to problems. Fa continues with the following thoughts that accurately describe some of what we are now experiencing on these platforms and in our virtual dialogue.
“Too many people have come to believe that discussion and debate are inadequate; they seek a society that squelches dissent with force. In law, government regulations are censoring speech that is “disparaging,” “immoral” and “offensive. In culture, people attack the speaker rather than engaging their ideas. Opponents vilify speakers as “misogynists,” or “racists,” and then attempt to drive them from the public square, or deprive them of their livelihood. In worst-case scenarios, disagreeable speech is met with violence. These attacks on the tradition of free speech are damaging to a free society and suppress uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate.”
It may indeed serve us better as human beings to return to actually speaking with our friends and neighbors, face-to-face or in the public square or even the fence in your yard—where, feelings, eye contact, tone of voice and body language help contextualize the conversation. One thing, however is certain: Regardless of the space we choose to hash out our differences or commune with our compatriots, we should be more self-reflective about what we stand to lose when censorship is the answer to disagreement or discomfort. We would do well reawaken our fervor to protect the exquisite freedoms we have been gifted. We should guard those freedoms with a seriousness of purpose that respects the heroes and scoundrels who have laid the foundations that made this great nation possible.