That Was The Week - Essay

Facebook, Twitter and platform censorship.

Of course Mark Zuckerberg is an easy target. Seeming to protect Donald Trump is not a popular step.

We have all learned to understand how utterly self-serving President Trump is, and that Trump will do and say almost anything in order to attempt to keep the momentum in his favor — at least in his own mind.

In that context Zuckerberg is easily portrayed as an unprincipled and opportunistic capitalist, bent on short term advantage. It is almost commonplace to say that Zuckerberg has no principles other than profit and that, unlike Jack Dorsey at Twitter, has no backbone. But the truth is this has to be looked at from the perspective of censorship. Not government censorship, or editorial choice, but a new kind of censorship I will call platform censorship.

Let’s attempt to look at the issues and consider the consequences of the actions of both companies. I will not repeat a verbatim list of the events of the past two weeks as they are well known and have been well covered here.

Let’s remember that Facebook and Twitter are not publishers with editorial boards. They are platforms, initially promising to be open to anybody to become a publisher. They have terms and conditions that broadly mean they enforce staying within the law. Beyond that everybody gets to say what they believe.

By contrast a TV station or a magazine, a blog, or newspaper is a publication, with staff, and also opinion pieces from 3rd parties and editorials from itself. There is no promise to be open or inclusive.

Assessing behavior requires being quite specific about the difference between open platforms and publications. They are judged by different standards.

  1. Is it censorship to modify or delete the posts made by Donald Trump?

Firstly let’s define censorship as modifying the original intent of a writer through partial or complete deletion or modification. It would be unusual for a publication to do this. More likely it would simply not publish and would be within its rights. If it did publish an opinion piece but then modified it, that would strike most reasonable people as wrong.

For a platform to delete or modify a post that is not illegal would be just as wrong, and indeed more so as it explicitly exists to enable such posts.

It is also worth pointing out that there is a distinction between editorial censorship and government censorship. Editorial censorship strikes at a publisher on a platform (Donald Trump on Twitter or Facebook) or a writer in a publication (a writer in the New York Times) , the other strikes at broad civil liberties (nobody can say “x” anywhere. Both are forms of censorship. The decisions by Twitter are platform censorship. The decision by Facebook to resist platform censorship is more aligned to normal practice.

2. Is editorial censorship better than government censorship? Does it have less dire consequences?

Editorial decision making in a publication is mostly considered an issue that is private to a publication. That said, there is a long history of opposition to censorship in the media, no matter where it comes from with a right to reply as a common remedy to dissent.

Platforms do not historically make editorial decisions. Both Facebook and Twitter promise that they are open to all human beings posting. Platform censorship is new in recent years and is far more egregious than editorial decision making because it reneges on the promise of an open forum in which all can publish.

Consider, if you will, that the New York Times regularly decided to add commentary to its op-eds indicating support or hostility or a suggestion that one should not consider it accurate. The very meaning of an op-ed would be undermined. Platform censorship undermines the very meaning of an open platform.

Because they are platforms, open to all, Facebook and Twitter are both 100% “op-ed”-like, or opinion based.

Censorship of any user-contributed content opens up a path to a place where only “approved” points of view are tolerated. That would not be a good outcome. I assume the reason is obvious.

3. Is modifying Trump’s posts justified because it seeks to protect the public?

Donald Trump is possibly not a clever man. A very large number of people understand that he is a conniving, lying, deceitful President. They understand that when he says something it is, first and foremost, what he believes will gain him the most support, not whether it is true. This observation would be made both by his supporters and his opponents. The only difference is that his supporters welcome or at least excuse him whilst his opponents berate him.

What this means is that, as adults with a brain, we the people, need no protection from reading his thoughts. The people are not kindergarten students being shielded from evil by a teacher or parent. We are able to make up their own mind, and do so.

The decisions to hide or modify Trump’s posts are serving only one purpose — to adapt to the pressure to censor coming from Trump’s opponents. By censoring they salve their conscience.

4. Should Trump be allowed to say whatever he wishes?

Clearly, within the law, the President should be allowed to speak or publish his mind on any platform that welcomes him and use any “facts” he determines. Determining if something is within the law is a job for the courts.

A Platform that wishes to decide which of his writings remain unaltered and which are modified or hidden should probably just decide to become a publication and cease to be a platform, establish an editorial policy, and then disallow him. That of course is hard if you are an open op-ed-like platform as Twitter and Facebook are.

These companies would be best placed to keep a hands-off approach and allow others to say whether they approve, disapprove, find a post to be fact based or based on lies, and so on. There are plenty of respondents who do so.

The consequence of interfering is that this interference has to become ubiquitous and even-handed across all posts. An impossible task and one that would make the platforms very much less worth reading and responding to.

5. So what is the solution?

The solution to dissent and disagreement is dissent and disagreement. As this quote, wrongly attributed to Voltaire in 1759, says, the right way for us to consider the written or spoken word is to assert:

“I wholly disapprove of what you say — and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It really does not matter who the speaker is or what they say. This principle ensures a healthy public discourse and fierce contestation of the facts and the opinions we all utter.

Twitter and Facebook would both be capable of adding features enabling fact checking by users as responses, opinion dissension as responses, new facts as responses, and many more. A good product team would quickly find these and other features easy to design and deploy. This would add to the public discourse not seek to crush it. The legal system could be left to take care of law breaking.

6. So is Mark Zuckerberg right to say hands-off Trump’s posts?

I am a solid yes on this question. Please leave the reader to judge his posts — I will and I do. Based on that my judgement is that I will happily say goodbye to the President when we vote him out in November. Until then let him give me more reasons for that decision. I can deal with it.

At times of high emotion and sentiment, rationality is often the loser. And any ability to see short term actions in the context of long term goals is sacrificed at the altar of expediency.