Social Media: When Does “Actively Working With the Government” Become Censorship?

Criticism of Facebook
Criticism of Facebook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a September 21 post, Mark Zuckerberg shared nine steps the  site he started is taking “to protect election integrity and make sure that Facebook is a force for good in democracy,” by “actively working with the government” and “partnering with public authorities.”

The day before that, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Theresa May, used the United Nations General Assembly as a forum to demand that social media networks “ensure terrorist material [read: content that May disapproves of] is detected and removed within one to two hours.”

From the current Red Scare (“Russian election meddling”) and other nation-state attempts to limit speech they define as foreign propaganda or support for terrorism, to ongoing efforts to “combat hate speech,”  the cycle of demands from government and compliance by social media giants is speeding up regarding what the rest of us are allowed to read, write, watch, and share.

Newer social media networks like Minds.com and Gab.ai have been growing as the targets of these efforts abandon Facebook and Twitter. But those upstarts are themselves facing backlash of various sorts from service providers such as web hosts and domain registrars.

An increasingly important question, especially for libertarians (of both the civil and ideological variety), is:

At what point does “actively working with the government” and “partnering with public authorities” cease to be private, albeit civic-minded, market activity and become de facto government activity?

Or, to put it differently, when does it cease to be merely “you can’t talk like that in my living room” (exercise of legitimate property rights) and start becoming “you can’t talk like that, period” (censorship)?

My own answer: When Mark Zuckerberg starts using the phrase “actively working with the government” as if that’s a good thing, we’re well into the danger zone.

Fortunately, the situation is (or at least can be) self-correcting. Companies rise and companies fall. The positions of Facebook and Twitter atop the social media pile may SEEM unassailable at the moment, but there was a time when few expected a new generation of retailers to bring Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck to their knees. If you’re not too young you may remember how that turned out.

Social media already serves two masters: Its users and its advertisers. One more master — the state — is one too many. If Facebook and Twitter don’t stop playing with fire, let market demand for free speech burn them to the ground.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • JdL

    If Facebook and Twitter don’t stop playing with fire, let market demand for free speech burn them to the ground.

    Yep! I’m not terribly worried about this aspect of repression, since there are so many avenues for purveyors of information to use as alternatives to the providers who are selling out to government censorship demands.

    Of course things may get worse: the U.S. government might outlaw the dissemination of certain ideas, forcing authors to go underground. That would, of course, be a two-edged sword, as underground publications (relatively easy to implement on the Internet) would highlight the evil of such actions.

    • Yep. The nightmare scenario — and I expect it — is that Facebook and Twitter LOBBY for government regulation to “supplement” and “enable” their censorious initiatives, precisely so that nobody can gain market advantage on them by being freer.

  • Amazon.com joined the fray on March 6, 2017 when it delisted over 100 titles from its site on the subject of the Holocaust (the “wrong” view, of course). Its list, apparently from Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, included titles Amazon had carried for decades.

    More such cleansing of history is not only to be expected, but no doubt already well under way. The Largest Bookstore on Planet Earth isn’t quite as large as the motto implies.

    • Interesting.

      On the one hand, I don’t see any reason why Amazon should be required to carry fiction (“Holocaust revisionism”) fraudulently labeled as non-fiction.

      On the other hand, I’d prefer that they independently evaluated the books they carry from a truth in advertising standpoint instead of letting governments (Yad Vashem is an Israeli government institution) decide which books they carry.

      • Is there, in your mind, any such thing as NON-fiction Holocaust revisionism?

        If you’re undecided as to this “black swan” question, I’d be delighted to send you a sample (from Amazon’s delist) to help you answer this question.

        Or, you could select for yourself from the lists at http://www.holocausthandbooks.com. Of course, I’d need your shipping address, unless you choose to simply download one of the many “free” titles.

        • I am not undecided, because there isn’t any “question” involved. People are perfectly entitled to believe and/or pretend that the Earth is flat, that 2+2=5, or that the Holocaust was a hoax. I don’t have to pretend that they’re not crazy as shithouse rats, though.

          • In order to prevent/avoid fraud, must a book asserting/proving that the earth is flat be classified as fiction?

            By the way, Holocaust revisionism does not simply “pretend that the Holocaust was a hoax.”

            The Holocaust is Based on a True Story, like many movies and books, including many, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, first published as a novel and subsequently reclassified as a memoir.

          • Bottom line: I support your right to sell what you’re selling, but I’m not buying it. Try someone else.

          • Well, actually I was trying to interest you in Amazon’s censorship activities. But I guess the cause at issue turns you off from the larger cause of media censorship.

            I’m used to it. Your cause is good. And so is mine, not that you’d let me show you so. I hope you get better reception of yours.

          • You don’t have to interest me in Amazon’s censorship activities — I’ve been interested in them for years (starting with their shutdown of the Wikileaks site on their hosting service back when).

            Amazon wasn’t mentioned in this article because this article is about social media.

  • David K. M. Klaus

    I’m surprised the Virgin Islands paper is able to publish right now.

    You were reprinted in *Armenia*?!?

    • Yep — first time in Armenia to the best of my recollection. I think that gets me up to 19 or 20 countries now.

      I’m not surprised the Virgin Islands were up fairly quickly. Key West’s newspaper was back before the end of the week that Irma hit.