Reason Podcast

Should Facebook and Twitter Censor Themselves? A Debate.

What should the culture of free speech, free expression, and ownership look like on our social media platforms?


Should social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube only remove users who make true threats or incite violence? Or do they have an ethical obligation to hold their users to a higher standard?

That was the topic of a recent public debate hosted by Reasona West Coast version of the popular New York City-based debate series, The Soho Forum—pitting Thaddeus Russell, author of A Renegade History of the United States and host of the Unregistered podcast, against Ken White, an attorney at Brown, White & Osborn, author at the legal blog Popehat, and co-host of the podcast All the President's Lawyers.

Russell argued that corporations that accept tax breaks and public subsidies should be more accountable to the public. White held that social media sites deserve the same set of speech rights and limitations as ordinary citizens.

Both speakers agreed with the broader libertarian point that private websites have the legal right to do what they want. The debate hinged on a broader point: What should the culture of free speech, free expression, and ownership look like on our social media platforms?

It was an Oxford-style debate, in which the audience votes on the resolution before and after the event, and the side that picks up the most votes wins. White won the debate by picking up 20 percent of the votes.

The debate was held on November 1, 2018, at Reason's Los Angeles studio.

Edited by Ian Keyser. Recording by Meredith Bragg, Paul Detrick, and Zach Weissmueller.

'Machinery' by Kai Engel is licenced under CC BY-NC 4.0

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  1. “Our” social media?
    Stockholders are we?

  2. Answer: no.

  3. They can censor what they please so long as it’s not the government pressuring them to do so.

    Which I think is the case.

    So maybe they should push back, do whatever it is they would do without government pressure, and defend themselves when governments carry out the vague threats they’ve probably been uttering in public and behind the scenes.

    1. Also, absent a gag order, publicize any formal or informal government request for censorship. Help the governments of the world be transparent.

      “Got a call from the Bulgarian minister of Public Order. He said it would be too bad if we became a platform for anti-Bulgarian propaganda. We told him to put his requests in writing.”

    2. Re: “so long as it’s not the government pressuring them to do so. Which I think is the case.”

      I disagree. I think gov’t is playing a big part in Big Tech censorship. The most overt instance was when Zuckerberg was caught on a hot mic agreeing to help censor “hate speech” to Angela Merkel. Of course, the EU has made it very clear that what the gov’t considers “hate speech” is extremely politically-motivated.

      I think the central problem is the classic one of “once we draw a line, then it becomes a game of moving where the line is drawn” combined with a true slippery slope.

      For illustration: Gov’t tells Big Tech to censor child porn. It is easy to agree with that, so Big Tech sets up the apparatus to do such censorship. Gov’t then comes and asks Big Tech to censor Al Qaeda. Again, easy to agree to. Then, the gov’t labels some political group like Antifa a domestic terrorist organization and asks to censor that, and so on.

      1. Personally, I don’t want the Antifa, (Which US intelligence agencies have already, and properly so, identified as a terrorist organization.) censored. I want their viciousness widely on display.

        What irks me is the transparent hypocrisy of FB leaving the Antifa uncensored, and censoring other, far less offensive groups. It just makes it utterly clear that their censorship is purely political.

        1. The problem is that Google and FB are in bed with democrat donors that see antifa as a good thing with a noble goal. Look at how they tout the SPLC for example.

  4. >>>make true threats or incite violence


  5. Certainly Facebook and Twitter have every right to decide who gets to speak on their platform, just as Donald Trump has every right to decide who gets to speak at one of his press confe………Oh, wait, nevermind.

    1. Well maybe just on his Twitter account…sorry.

    2. Trump can’t even block users from his tweets, let alone stop reporters at a press conference.

  6. Well, I see that the dictionary has expanded the old definition of censorship from government action only to government OR GROUP action, so I can’t whine anymore about the decimation of the language.

    However, in that case, the question is not ‘should’ social media censor, because they are doing so. One alternate question could be should social media companies that only censor one point of view be required to register as a lobbyist for the other point of view? Should praises for one party over another be counted as “in kind” political contributions? What is the liability of a social media that does NOT censor rabid hate speech from one side while censoring the opposite view? Should a social media be able to delete one of two posts advocating elimination of the opposite view, and not delete the other? Say for example, leave up violent anti-Semitic posts while deleting an identical post about Muslims?

    I would say if a social media company is claiming protection from suits under 203, they should not be allowed to change anything posted. They should remain what they claim, a conduit. That way, they would become unusable, and stop polluting the planet. If they wish to edit and censor, they should be treated as the publisher they are, and be liable for their actions.

    Disclosure, I have never had a social media account, because of their lack of sociability, and their terms of service.

  7. “The Melania Trump?led firing of deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel has prompted some speculation about whether this means the influence of Ricardel’s boss, superhawk John Bolton, is on the wane and a new dawn for non-interventionism is on the way.”

    1. I hate to harp on this over and over again. Suffice it to say that Trump didn’t elevate John Bolton for any reason other than he was one of the few Republicans who was loyal to Trump during his campaign–and Trump needs to discuss his policy with Russia, for instance, without having to worry about whether his National Security Advisor will throw him under the bus to Mueller or an impeachment committee.

      Incidentally, Trump didn’t appoint Sessions to Attorney General because he gave a shit about Sessions’ views on legal marijuana in the states, and he didn’t appoint Larry Kudlow to be his economic advisor because he gave a shit about Kudlow’s enthusiastic support for free trade either. Trump elevated all of these people because of their loyalty, which makes a ton of sense–since he’s dealing with people were gunning for him from within his own FBI and Justice Department before he was elected, an eminently hostile press, a Republican party rife with his enemies, and an impeachment hungry special counsel breathing down his neck.

      So, please note, when you see that Trump may appoint John Bolton, Christ Christie, Newt Gingrich, Larry Kudlow, Sarah Palin, or a few others to some position, it almost certainly does not mean that Trump has this or that position in mind for which the appointee in question is well known. Rather, it means Trump wants someone in that position who is less likely to bend him over and fuck him in the ass.

      1. ” Rather, it means Trump wants someone in that position ”

        I doubt Trump cares that much about his cabinet and who sits in it. Trump’s biggest constibutor, fellow casino boss and zionist Sheldon Adelson wanted Bolton, and money talks.

  8. also maybe we quit giving the Boy-King and his company so much power. who the fuck cares what FB censors? stop using it.

  9. Tweet from Thad:

    “Government subsidies received:

    Amazon: $1 billion, with another $2.5 billion on the way from NYC and VA
    Tesla: $3.5 billion
    Google: $766 million
    Apple: $693 million
    Facebook: $333 million

    Libertarians who cheer for Big Tech need to stop.”

    Reason editors: “Why don’t you just make another social media platform?”

    1. I often dispute the idea of “tax breaks being described as ‘subsidies'”

      I think the devil is in the details in most cases: it mostly has to do w/ whether the policy is directly in aid of a single institution/company, or whether its something locals/state/federals do as something to benefit an *industry*

      (and there are in-between categories as well, such as breaks which favor large over small, national over international, etc.)

      one can quibble , whether individual, or done as a group, ALL selective tax-breaks incentivize corporations to curry political favor instead of just competing better in the marketplace. And once in place, they become politically impossible to un-do

      But i still think the distinctions matter.

      in Thad’s tweet above, I assume he conflates benefits many receive as a group (or from, like apple, foreign govts) with the idea that they’re being individually propped up by the state. I don’t really think the point he’s trying to make is really as clear as he’d like to pretend it is.

      1. ALL selective tax-breaks incentivize corporations to curry political favor instead of just competing better in the marketplace.

        This I completely agree with. I don’t want them picking winners and losers. His tweet might not have been distinctive but he makes it clear that he wants them out of practically everything we do.

    2. “Why don’t you just make another social media platform?”

      There are already plenty of social media platforms. What you want is to be able to transfer your list of contacts (Facebook Friends) to your newly chosen platform. If you can do this, Facebook’s dominance over the market is diminished thanks to a smooth and easy migration process.

      1. That seems like a decent business idea, go for it.

        But assuming they aren’t chomping at the bit to give up their products (us) I don’t want to make them give anyone this option. I just dont want our govt picking winners and losers

        1. It’s against FB’s terms of service and they will ban any service that does this.

  10. “Censor themselves” ?? This makes no sense. Don’t you mean should they censor OTHERS?

    Facebook and Twitter are not content producers. They’re a platform that exists to enable others to publish content. They’re like a massive modern day printing press (one that they happen to have something bordering on monopoly power over).

    So the only coherent question is whether, and to what degree, and in which instances, Facebook and Twitter and Youtube should censor OTHERS.

    1. If they get into the business of content moderation, can we start treating them like publishers?

      1. What do you mean, “if?” They are already up to their eyeballs in content moderation and have been for several years now.

    2. That was my thought: The very idea of FB and Twitter censoring themselves is incoherent. Censoring is something you do to others.

  11. I see no problem with services like Facebook moderating the content that is posted on them, IF (1) they’re honest about it (for instance, no shadowbans), (2) they don’t coordinate with other social media to exclude targeted persons (which ought to be, and I think is, in violation of antitrust law), and (3) alternative media are not prevented from taking up the slack because they’re denied what are effectively monopoly services such as access to the internet’s Domain Name Service or to the US banking system.

    Facebook and its allies have violated all these rules, and their top management belongs in prison.

  12. Why don’t we sue Verizon for peoples’ offensive text messages?

    1. Verizon doesn’t selectively delete messages….

  13. No censorship ought to be applied to online sites, e.g., Facebook, YouTube, etc., unless they are visibly threatening. If someone writes a comment stating they are going to kill the author whose article they are reading, obviously they should be censored, and then tracked down and arrested. Absent this kind of threat, however, censoring YouTube, etc., which has already caused some people, me for example, to be blocked from commenting based upon their political beliefs, is the LAST thing we as a (somewhat) free country should want.

  14. FB and Twitter seem to be missing the real danger to them “censoring” themselves (i.e., deciding what content can and can’t appear on their sites), namely, that they could easily end up as a “publisher,” not a “platform.”

    If they’re the latter, they have immunity from lawsuits over what gets posted under federal law. If they’re the former, that immunity vanishes and they’re no different than any other media company that publishes actionable content.

  15. Social media platforms provide a service for a profit by advertising to their members. What behaviors that they allow by their members should be up the platform. If you don’t like what you read you can always “unfollow” , “unfriend”, or delete your account.

  16. So long as no government coercion is involved in the censorship, Fuckfacebook and Twatter can censor all they want.

    File under DGAF

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