Trump Is Confused About Social Media. He’s Not Alone.
I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell the president, but someone has to: Social media is not the public square, not even a virtual one.
Not Facebook. Not Reddit. Not YouTube. And definitely not Twitter, where a few days after Facebook announced it was barring some extremist voices like Alex Jones, President Trump furiously tapped out: “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”
He can monitor (yes, that’s definitely a creepy word) and watch all he wants, but it will not matter one bit. Because the First Amendment requires only that the government not make laws that restrict freedom of speech for its citizens.
Here’s the whole text if you need a refresher — and anyway, it’s kind of short: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
With all the loud opinions and screechy videos and belligerent tweets — and that’s just our president on any given Sunday — many people have mixed up the actual free-speech rights of “AMERICAN CITIZENS” with the ability of loudmouths and bullies to spew whatever they like to tens of millions of people any time of day or night.
The confusion is understandable. Those inventive entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, with their smooth libertarian groove and anything-goes tone, let users huff and puff away so much that you would think that they were actually committed to the idea of a free-for-all. And they were, until it became clear that humanity could get really ugly and out of control pretty quickly and turn it into a Free Speech Thunderdome.
It was too much, then too little and most definitely too late. Now they are realizing that reining in that expression will be hard if not impossible, since they taught everyone that they could say whatever they want on their platforms. They have been trying to have it both ways, and as a result their responses have been perplexing.
In testimony to Congress last fall, for example, Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, seemed to call his platform a public square several times, even though he also noted that the company was within its rights to remove content.
“We can only stand for freedom of expression if people feel safe to express themselves in the first place,” he said in an interview with Wired magazine soon after. “A lot of people come to Twitter and they don’t see a service. They see what looks like a public square and they have the same expectation as they have of a public square, and that is what we have to get right.”
But then in February on the Sam Harris podcast “Making Sense,” Mr. Dorsey veered into an even more convoluted explanation: “Ultimately, I don’t think we can be this neutral, passive platform anymore because of the threats of violence, because of doxxing, because of troll armies intending to silence someone, especially more marginalized members of society,” he said. “We have to take on an approach of impartiality — meaning that we need very crisp and clear rules, we need case studies and case law for how we take action on those rules, and any evolutions of that we’re transparent and upfront about.” He continued: “I do believe that a lot of people come to Twitter with the expectation of a public square, and freedom of expression is certainly one of those expectations. But what we’re seeing is people weaponize that to shut others’ right to that down. And that is what we’re trying to protect, ultimately.”
It’s not hard to imagine why anyone, especially a twitchy tapper like President Trump, would respond with: Say what? The strategy over at Facebook — which also long defended the presence of its most noxious users before finally barring several last week — is similarly as clear as mud.
But let me break it down for those who have gotten used to the chaos: Social media companies are private entities that can moderate any of the content that floods their platforms. They can kick off users who violate whatever policies they have in place, change those policies anytime they like and be wildly inconsistent in how they enforce them.
That’s entirely legal under current law, which was girded by the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which said that corporations have free-speech rights, including the right not to speak. That means they cannot be forced to host dreck if they don’t want to.
That, of course, is scary to the slippery-slope crowd, who worry that a small coterie of mostly male, mostly white, mostly obscenely wealthy people are making such enormous publishing decisions for everyone. As Bret Stephens, a Times columnist, asked in the wake of the Facebook purge: “Do you trust Mark Zuckerberg and the other young lords of Silicon Valley to be good stewards of the world’s digital speech?”
Mr. Stephens does not, and it’s clear President Trump doesn’t either.
Some of those who have been kicked off social media platforms for their extremist or violent views have sued, pointing to a few previous Supreme Court and state decisions that have extended public speech into private analog spaces. Others are positing that services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube should be regulated like public utilities.
What’s obvious is that the rules are not clear in a world in which the idea of the public square has been turned on its head. It is a truly challenging problem for democracy in the United States and for its increasingly voluble citizens who are now experiencing limits to what they can say.
Except for President Trump, that is. He has been declared newsworthy by lords like Mr. Dorsey and therefore exempt from paying any penalty for his frequently offensive, inaccurate or generally vile utterances.
That means we cannot be free from his speech. Except perhaps if we exercise the one right we all have that no one can take away: to stop listening.
Initial image: Illustration by Jeffrey Henson Scales, photograph by Kemter/E+, via Getty Images