The social media giants, Facebook and Google, do indeed pose threat to our democracy, though not in the way that the pundits and politicians have been saying.
These companies, yes, have been entirely irresponsible with our personal data. And, yes, they have made it far too easy for political operatives, both domestic and foreign, to assume false identities and meddle in our politics.
Far more ominously, however, the social media giants with their digital platforms have risen to be gatekeepers to the modern-day town square and public forum. As such, they have acquired enormous potential power to stifle debate and sway elections by their own decisions and their own actions.
Now, Facebook has announced that it will start to wield this power, choosing who can enter the public forum and regulating what they can say.
This is a threat that we must… and can… contain in order to protect our liberties and preserve our democracy.
To retain their users and comply with new laws, the social media giants have been enhancing protections for personal data and introducing methods for transparency in political advertising.
While these measures are welcome, they neglect to account for the rise of the social media giants into colossi of technology and communications who have assumed roles and powers that have transformed them into so-called government actors within society and politics.
Specifically, the social media giants have become the gatekeepers for access to… and the arbiters of speech upon… their social platforms, which platforms are our modern-day town squares and public forums for political assembly and speech.
Facebook and Google therefore ought to be and need to be liberal in granting access to their social platforms; in tolerating speech within their public forums. They should strive to prevent speech that advocates physical violence, yes. But otherwise, no, they should not interfere with the gathering of people and the expression of ideas that are protected under the 1st Amendment.
The social colossi had until recently professed themselves to support such a policy. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, testified to Congress this spring that his company seeks to be a platform for expression of “all ideas.”
But early this summer, Facebook and Google began to make access to their platforms and eligibility for advertising contingent upon conformity with their own chosen standards for acceptable speech, as decided and enforced by their own chosen methods and rules.
Then, on August 6, Facebook took the portentous step, announcing that their policy was no longer to support all voices and ideas, as Zuckerberg had testified they would, but rather to create a space in which “everyone using Facebook [will] feel safe.”
Facebook now presumes to be censor for offense and fact; for hate and truth. It now presumes to define and enforce political correctness upon our modern-day town square.
As a result, we need to adopt prohibition against the social media giants impinging on the speech of those from the public who seek to engage in political discourse on their platforms, provided that those seeking to speak are willing to disclose their political identities and refrain from advocating physical violence.
To be clear, these companies must retain their rights to speak as themselves within the political realm for their own beliefs and interests, including allowance for them to indicate on their platforms whom they do and do not endorse (through, say, an icon or badge that serves as a seal of approval). They must also retain their existing protections against liability for the speech by others upon their platforms.
But to preserve a vibrant democracy, these colossi need to be prohibited from controlling who can speak and what they can say, now that they have declared that their policy is to do so.
The question that arises is whether a private entity functioning in a governmental capacity can be so prohibited. And according to the Supreme Court in the mid-century case, Marsh v. Alabama, the answer is that, yes, it can.
The case was in regard to a company town… built, owned, and managed by a shipbuilding company…. in which a Jehovah’s Witness sought to distribute literature that supported her beliefs.
After the company tried to prevent her from doing so, the Supreme Court ruled that it could not, because even though the company owned the town, it functioned in practice as a governmental actor. It was therefore prohibited from denying the freedoms of speech and religion that are due to those using the town’s roads and otherwise availing themselves of the town’s public spaces.
All of which means that a strategy for protecting our rights and strengthening democracy is both imperative and practicable:
- Transparency: We need disclaimers and disclosures for both paid political ads and paid political trolling on the leading social platforms, so that those representing campaigns, political action committees, foreign agencies, etc, cannot operate anonymously.
- Open Access and Free Speech: We need to require open access to the leading social platforms, and free speech upon them, prohibiting only those voices that advocate physical violence. Which is to say, we need to remove temptation and deny right for the social media giants to act as agents of political correctness on their de facto public forums.
- Faith and Trust in Individuals: Most important, we need to realize that we will never completely eliminate meddling and mischief in politics. We need to place our faith and trust in individuals to read, listen, debate, and decide for themselves what to think and how to vote. The decisions and outcomes will be all the better, if we have more voices instead of fewer; if we have more visibility as to who is saying what.
Russian provocateurs are not an ominous threat to our democracy. But after their decisions and actions this summer, the social media giants now are. To contain them, all we need to do is to insist on transparency, reinforce our fundamental rights, and keep faith in our people.
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Written by David Lashar