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Censorship in the New Public Square


Publishers or Platforms


June 6, 2019

Published in the Christian Times Magazine


A serious problem has developed that is beginning to directly threaten free speech as well as our ability to communicate or even conduct business in this technological era in which we live. The suppression of speech, the manipulation of perception, and the weaponization of technology are incredibly dangerous to a free society that relies upon the unimpeded communication and interaction between individuals. It is unconstitutional when the government attempts to do this. It is unacceptable at the very least, certainly unethical, definitely unamerican, and potentially a violation of civil rights when private companies do this. With a significant percentage of all public communication and interaction taking place online, particularly on social media, the internet has become the new public square. It is a terrifying prospect to think that large media companies, that control a significant percentage of public interaction throughout the world, are censoring speech and impeding commerce in the worldwide public square. We cannot allow censorship online.


“We cannot allow censorship online”


The New Invention & Free Speech


It may seem as though the internet has been here forever but, in many ways, it is still in its infancy. While much of our interaction with the internet is through Wi-Fi, the internet is just a bunch of computers hardwired together. We merely access these computers remotely through radio waves. That means that the internet is physical property owned by private individuals and businesses. While it is private property, it has been built largely by people who were excited to share ideas and information with the public for free. There was and is a great amount of open source sharing among people who enjoy contributing to the creation of this new technology called the internet.

The internet is an incredibly interesting place full of information that is accessible to everyone for nothing more than the cost of going online It has always been a bit like an odd combination of the Wild West and a hippie commune full of intense geniuses building cities that spring up overnight in the “cloud.”


From the beginning, the internet was full of staunch advocates for free speech, freedom of expression, and the free exchange of ideas. Everyone seemed to be making statements about protecting freedom online and it seemed to reinvigorate the world with a renewed sense of hope, cooperation, and entrepreneurship readily accessible at our fingertips.


The Internet is the New Public Square


The internet changed everything. It is one of those amazing technologies, like the combustion engine, that has had the power to transform the world. With every invention, the world shifts slightly, but the internet caused exponential change as humanity lept forward technologically. It has likely changed how we will interact forever.

It has of course been a long tie since we walked or rode horses to the town square to meet people and sell our wares. However, we used to at least need to leave our homes or get something printed to interact with the public in some way. Now we do not necessarily even need to get out of bed to go to work, get food, or participate in a town hall meeting with the members of our community and our elected officials. Because the internet has replaced the public square, what happens on that private property significantly impacts the public.


“The internet has replaced the public square”


Dependence


To say that this virtual world has replaced the public square may sound like an exaggeration, but the vast majority of the civilized world is now online. Looking at the United States alone, 90% of Americans use the internet and 79% have social media accounts. (1) 77% of Americans go online daily, with 43% of them going online multiple times a day, and 26% going online constantly. (2)


Social media sites, that used to be considered toys, are now part of serious news stories and how people conduct business. Public figures, companies, and individuals have profiles and are using them to make money, influence the public, and to communicate with one another and the entire world. They have become incredibly powerful and are playing a significant role in politics. Looking at the statistics for social media use in the U.S. you can see that it plays a large part in our lives both directly and indirectly.


(2)


These changes have come with the rise of big media companies. They started out as small startups in garages and basements and have developed into incredibly influential behemoths. Their success has altered their position in society from small private companies with purely internal concerns to publicly traded companies whose operations are a matter of great public interest.


Power Corrupts


Now that we are so heavily dependent on these websites, and the companies that own them, they have begun to shift from being the neutral platforms and beacons of free speech that they once were to being “publishers.” They are now unilaterally determining what is considered fact, which opinions may be heard, and who may have access to public discourse. Their desire to regulate our speech on, and sometimes off, their sites is alarming. It becomes even more disturbing as many of them have announced plans to interfere even more. To be fair, some of this is pressure being placed upon them by other companies, political figures, and political movements, but not all. Much of this is their own desire to control the public, and we cannot allow it to happen.


If an individual is deplatformed, shadowbanned, or downgraded in some way by a social media site it is no longer just a matter of the interests of that company but of society as a whole. That person is not merely being removed from one store in one town. That person is being removed almost completely from society and is potentially being directly prevented from earning a living.


There are concerning parallels between removing someone from the internet and the way that we remove someone from society by placing them in jail, but without the usual protection of rights, laws, and due process, as developed and agreed upon by an elected and representative body. We are not talking about taking a toy away from a naughty child. We are talking about preventing adults from participating in society and altering our impression of reality. Social media sites have been targeting those whose political ideology the leadership disagrees with and preventing them from participating for violating what they refer to as “community standards” or other similar terms. In reality, the only crime is having a different political opinion and voicing it publicly.

Social media is just a part of the problem. Even those who do not spend any significant time on social media sites still use search engines to find information online. The mechanisms that search engines use to curate results can easily be altered to promote or hide information. If those search engines operate based on criteria designed to alter the search results so that they are no longer impartial platforms, then it changes our perception of what the facts are and diminishes our access to information. More than one search engine got caught tampering with search results during the last election with the obvious intent of influencing voters with a false impression of the facts.


(3)


Bait & Switch


It would be unjust to accuse these companies of a nefarious plot to pull a bait and switch. No one planned this from the very beginning, because no one knew the technology that would exist today. No one expected toys to take the place of the public square; to be used to alter our perception of people, ideas, and reality; or to be turned into propaganda delivery systems or totalitarian pseudogovernments. No one expected beacons of free speech and open communication to quietly write algorithms and design bots to tamper with history, facts, the meaning of words, or what is happening in the world. That is not to say that no one is making plans no to take advantage of the power that has been accumulated. Obviously that it is precisely what is happening now.


It would be unjust to accuse these companies of a nefarious plot to pull a bait and switch. No one planned this from the very beginning, because no one knew the technology that would exist today. No one expected toys to take the place of the public square; to be used to alter our perception of people, ideas, and reality; or to be turned into propaganda delivery systems or totalitarian pseudogovernments. No one expected beacons of free speech and open communication to quietly write algorithms and design bots to tamper with history, facts, the meaning of words, or what is happening in the world. That is not to say that no one is making plans no to take advantage of the power that has been accumulated. Obviously that it is precisely what is happening now.



It must be incredibly tempting to take advantage of the power that they have accumulated, especially if they think that they are making the world a better place by breaking the rules themselves. But there is a reason that we talk about unintended consequences and say that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Even if it is not the government doing the censoring, the invariable result of the suppression of speech is oppression and tyranny.


Monsters of Our Own Making


We cannot lay the entirety of the blame for this problem at the feet of tech companies. We turned a blind eye to what was clearly coming for the sake of our own conveniences and benefit when we should have been standing up for the rights of others. Many rationalized the problems away because the targets were people who we considered to be bad and whose opinions we could not stand. But things like this never stop the bad guys. Today it is some lunatic whose political ideology we find abhorrent. Tomorrow it is a stranger whose post was misinterpreted. The next day it is a friend, and eventually, it could be you or me. It is a very slippery slope when you start down the path of deciding whose opinion is allowed to be heard and whose is not.


Solutions


We must not allow this to continue and we certainly cannot allow it to get any worse. There are two basic solutions. We either tell these companies that they need to straighten up or we will go elsewhere, or we look to government to regulate the internet.


They are not hearing much from us on this subject. For the most part, the only people who are complaining are those who being targeted and those doing the targeting and attempting to use the power of media companies use their power to control speech. We are hearing very few people demand that these companies stop playing politics with their websites, that they clearly promoted as mere platforms for speech, or they will leave. I do not think that it is even necessary to actually abandon these websites, but it is necessary to speak up and defend free speech in the public square. The only power that these companies have is the power that we freely give them. If we all walked away tomorrow these websites would be ghost towns. Their only content is what we provide. Their product is us, our information, and our activity on their sites.


“The only power that these companies have is the power that we freely give them”


Leaving this problem to the government is not that simple. The internet is too complicated to regulate as a public utility, the government is rarely good at solving problems, and if we demand that government step in, then we hand the government the ultimate temptation.

Imagine, if you will, the U.S. government being run by the worst President, Congress, and Supreme Court Justices that you can possibly think of. Now imagine giving those people the power to control your speech online. You might not be worried when your friends and allies are in control but imagine your enemies in control. That is what you should always think about when you consider whether to give the government control of anything. It is inevitable that at some point your enemies will be in control, and you have set a precedent, ignored a law, or simply handed them the tools to destroy everything that you care about.


That thought should frighten us and all and kill our desire for most government intervention. But it means that we as individuals need to work together to address problems on our own. Maybe the solution to this is as simple us all writing a message to these companies and saying this is unacceptable or sharing a public post with a hashtag to get their attention. If that does not work, then maybe we do have to consider walking away. But, we cannot ignore this problem anymore. Think about that the next time you post a comment or search the web.


Statistics from: (1) Statistica, (2) Pew Research, and (3) Statcounter