In today’s world, we are witnessing the complete reign of social media in every sphere of our lives. Politics, economy, health, education, any sector you name, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many more such outlets have their impact on them. This has become even more prominent following the Covid-19 outbreak with lockdown imposed and people stranded in their homes.
As the world is witnessing more and more complexities, Facebook and Twitter are finding themselves in a Catch- 22, between conservatives who accuse them of stifling free speech when they block or put warning labels on questionable posts, and others who say the companies need to do more to stamp out online misinformation and conspiracy theories. As we know social media platforms could tweak their algorithms to curb the spread of misinformation, but many are claiming that they are going beyond their limits. And these sites are imposing censoring as per their own guidebook. How the entire thing is going? We shall discuss that in this article.
Impact of Facebook & Twitter’s censorship: Issue explained in 7 points
1. So what have FB, Twitter and YouTube done
This month, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have announced a steady stream of policies to block or limit the spread of conspiracy theories and other potentially harmful misinformation. Just this week, Facebook rolled out a ban on messages that deny the Holocaust happened, and ads that discourage vaccinations. A few days ago, YouTube banned videos that supported the unfounded QAnon conspiracy theory and other hoaxes that target individuals and could possibly lead to violence. Facebook and Twitter already established similar policies.
With each move, however, the social media platforms have raised the ire of conservatives who have long accused the companies of treating them unfairly. We can see the anger reached a new peak this week, with US President Trump and his allies lashing out about Twitter and Facebook’s decisions to block or limit the spread of an unverified story about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee. There are allegations that these companies are acting more like publishers than impartial platforms. A hearing, at which the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google are set to appear, is scheduled soon.
Let me get this straight: The NY Times can post to Twitter & Facebook its story on Trump’s taxes based on unnamed sources and documents it won’t produce. But the NY Post cannot post its story on Biden based on documents it produced. Confused? Don’t be. It’s political censorship.
— Gregg Jarrett (@GreggJarrett) October 15, 2020
2. What triggered the recent development?
Twitter and Facebook, criticized for years over their hands-off approach to content, are coming under fire in 2020 for taking too heavy a hand in policing what’s shared on their platforms. Call it growing pains. The latest flashpoint comes to us courtesy of the New York Post. Recently, the paper published a story that included unverified allegations about presidential candidate Joe Biden, his son Hunter and his ties to Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Facebook Inc., citing policies designed to clamp down on content that could be false or misleading, decided to limit the spread of the story on its platform until it had been verified by third-party fact-checkers. Twitter Inc. took an even more aggressive step by banning links to the Post’s story. After some backlash for not initially explaining the rationale behind the move, Twitter later said the Post reports violated the company’s policies on revealing private personal information and distribution of “hacked materials” without authorization.
3. What reaction did FB, Twitter receive for this?
The two Silicon Valley giants saw that hostile climate and reacted. Just two hours after the story was online, Facebook intervened. The company dispatched a life-long Democratic Party operative who now works for Facebook — Andy Stone, previously a communications operative for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, among other DC Democratic jobs — to announce that Facebook was “reducing [the article’s] distribution on our platform”: in other words, tinkering with its own algorithms to suppress the ability of users to discuss or share the news article. The long-time Democratic Party official did not try to hide his contempt for the article, beginning his censorship announcement by snidely noting: “I will intentionally not link to the New York Post.”
4. What are the allegations against FB, Twitter?
Curbing the first and foremost allegation which goes without saying. That constitutional guarantee restricts the actions of governments, not private corporations such as Facebook and Twitter. Many allege that actions by gigantic corporations are constitutional but that does not mean that they are benign.State censorship is not the only kind of censorship. Private-sector repression of speech and thought, particularly in the internet era, can be as dangerous and consequential. Imagine, for instance, if these two Silicon Valley giants united with Google to declare they will only allow contents cleared by their guidebook. Would anyone encounter difficultly understanding why such a decree would constitute dangerous corporate censorship?
5. Why we should take note of this development?
To begin with, Twitter and particularly Facebook are no ordinary companies. Facebook, as the owner not just of its massive social media platform but also other key communication services it has gobbled up such as Instagram and WhatsApp, is one of the most powerful companies ever to exist, if not the most powerful. Facebook’s monumental political and economic power — greater than most if not all the governments of nation-states — is the major impediment to such reforms.
Both Facebook and Twitter receive substantial, unique legal benefits from their federal law, further negating the claim that they are free to do whatever they want as private companies. We can see this is a form of authoritarian corporatism: simultaneously allowing tech giants to claim legally conferred privileges and exemptions while insisting that they can act without constraints of any kind. Then there is the practical impact of Twitter and Facebook uniting to block content published by a major newspaper. It is true in theory that one can still read the suppressed article by visiting the New York Post website directly, but the stranglehold that these companies exert over our discourse is so dominant that their censorship amounts to effective suppression of the reporting.
6. What is the Indian context of this issue?
The India government has already increased censoring social media platfoms rapidly in past few years. Following Covid-19 outbreak, the Centre has ramped up the use of an internet censorship law to block users and posts on social media and it also blocked many Chinese apps after its violent clash with the neighbor in Ladakh. Last year, Prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration ordered social media platforms to take down 3,433 URLs. This is more than a five-fold rise since 2016. The ministry did not specify which platforms comprised “social media,” but in earlier official notes it has included Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The URLs removed could have been of specific posts or user profiles.
Besides, Facebook has recently earned a bad name in India after it allegedly fail to take any strict action against its Indian users for posting hate contents. The names of top Facebook officials, BJP leaders and their nexus all created the controversy even more debatable and Facebook tried to salvage its old position and control the damage. So with FB and Twitter facing censorship crticisms for blocking a newspaper report, it will be interesting to see how the social media platforms handle sensitive and controversial contents by Indian users.
7. What does the Indian law says?
The Centre can order content removal on the internet under India’s Information Technology Act, which was passed in 2000, by a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, of which Modi is a member. Section 69A of this law authorises the government to block any digital information “if it is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient to do so, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence.”
Last year, an Indian court ordered Facebook, Twitter, and Google to remove government-flagged content globally, not just in India. Domestically-blocked content for now can be accessed by Indian users via technologies like VPNs that allow them to hide their location. The fight to control content on the Indian internet has heated up after Modi came to power. The UN special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression criticised the Indian government last month for targeting the Twitter accounts of individuals and even a news magazine based in Kashmir. During a dispute with Twitter, government officials had leaked to the press their threats to imprison its executives if the platform didn’t follow official content removal instructions.
— Swati Chaturvedi (@bainjal) March 17, 2018
Censorship is being administered not only by the Indian government, but also by the platforms themselves. Thousands of Indian users joined the decentralised social media platform Mastodon just this month, criticising what they say is Twitter’s arbitrary take-down of posts and suspension of user accounts that talk about oppression based on caste, a social hierarchy prevalent in India. Twitter has refuted these charges. Despite advocacy from a section of Indian users, the platform has not included caste-based abuse in its hate speech rules, a move that Mastodon made only days after user registrations from India spiked.
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