On September 6, Alex Jones, the creator of the conspiracy organization Infowars, was banned from Twitter. “We took this action based on new reports of Tweets and videos posted yesterday that violate our abusive behavior policy, in addition to the account’s past violations,” said Twitter.
This action is one in an ever-broadening debate over how and to what extent large companies should censor the speech put out on their platforms. This debate is relatively new because, for as long as the idea has existed, the fight for free speech rights has been almost solely with governments. This is because speech used to only be expressible in places under the jurisdiction of the government. As the world continues to globalize through social media and other online platforms though, authority over free speech may be changing hands from the government to private companies.
According to Vineet Kaul, a faculty member at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in India media and communication is a rapidly expanding business. “Media and Communication is the world’s fastest growing industry and is an area of rapid and continuous technological, political, economic, and social change.” The growth of social media is all encompassing. In other words, it will affect both social and political life. Because of this change in the way the world communicates, speech is evolving and changing locations to a currently little-governed zone—the internet, specifically social media.
The closest thing to a global conversation before internet-based platforms was a one-sided broadcast, editorial, opinion piece, or hand-plucked letter to the editor, published with great care by the world’s news organizations. In a way, for some large tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, conversation is the commodity they handle, as Kaul’s quote describing communication an industry suggests. As Americans subject themselves to the rules of civility of these private companies, they agree to give up whichever aspects of their speech that the company determines don’t belong on their platform.
The shift to social media, an increase in usage of about 17% a year, a quote from SmartInsights, could symbolize not only a shift in the location of human communication but also of government laws that protect free speech becoming less relevant in everyday American life. This increase rate shows the increasing eminence of this shift.
Right now, while the stakes are still low and ideas of online speech are still developing, social media giants seemed to have wielded their power well. They have created “laws” on their platforms to protect people from false information and hate speech, as demonstrated in the case of Alex Jones and Infowars. But what happens if social media becomes the dominant form of human interaction? What will these autonomous, governing corporate bodies do then? Will they be held accountable in an effort to protect the positive speech of users? Should they be held accountable or does that violate the laws of a capitalist democracy?
Not only does this case raise questions of future accountability issues for the companies themselves, but it also could have interesting implications for how free speech law and social media regulations will overlap in the opposite way. Social media could lead to more limited speech, but also it might allow for harmful things that are usually barred from other published communication like news media by libel and defamation suits, to slip through the cracks of looser platforms. And if these phrases or assertions are caught, could it lead to a rise in the number of individual libel suits, a legal action usually reserved for larger companies? The implications of social media’s expansion into public life are vast and uncertain and will continue to be so as human communication relies on it more and more.