KELLY BECK—On October 23rd, Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress, facing hostile and accusatory questions. One focal point of the testimony was what Facebook is doing to censor political ads and to combat misinformation leading up to the 2020 presidential election. While Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez grilled Zuckerberg, he stuck with his views that people should be allowed to see everything a politician says, whether it is truthful or not.
This was not Zuckerberg’s first encounter with Congress, nor was it his first fight about censorship. Zuckerberg has time and time again been a proponent of free speech. He believes that Facebook has created a positive platform, giving people a voice and connecting the world. While supporting the First Amendment is vital, is avoiding censorship on Facebook doing more harm than good? Should Mark Zuckerberg be responsible for ensuring users aren’t seeing “fake news” when they log onto Facebook?
What would it look like if Facebook were to use its vast powers to censor speech? On the basis of its own determination, Facebook would get to decide what is true, what is offensive, what is hurtful, and what is “fake news.” No person or algorithm is guaranteed or equipped to get it right every time. This was illustrated in 2018 when Facebook was interrogated for censoring conservative content, wrongly showing political bias. While Facebook, as a private company, is not completely bound by the First Amendment, it is not evident that Mark Zuckerberg is qualified to separate the truth from fiction. Entrusting self-interested tech companies to moderate and govern online communications may pose a threat to a democratic society.
Other social media platforms have taken a different approach on the topic. Twitter and TikTok, a Chinese video app, have stopped allowing political advertising on their platforms. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey argues that users should not have political ads or messages forced upon them just because someone can afford to pay for it. For him, users have the ability to follow or retweet a person and their political messages if they choose to do so. Dorsey has argued that this is not a fight about freedom of speech, but rather restricting people of power and wealth from controlling our democracy. TikTok’s approach to political ads differs in that they just don’t believe the ads fit in with their platform, as they want to promote and inspire creativity.
Many of the arguments in favor of censorship revolve around the notion that elections are being greatly impacted by the spread of misinformation on these social media platforms. However, studies have shown that during the 2016 election, social media only had a small influence on voters’ opinions. The research found that Facebook users, compared to users of only other social media platforms, had fewer misconceptions about campaign issues. As the research also illustrated, exposure to deceptive, phony messages is distinguishable from the belief people have in them, as individuals will often take measures to prevent themselves from being misled. Another study showed that overall, the public rates fake and hyper-partisan news as less accurate than mainstream news.
While social media’s impact on elections has shown to be limited, it is still unclear if this means false ads and propaganda are completely harmless. However, another hurdle social media platforms are now facing with censorship comes from the recent Supreme Court decision in 2017, Packingham v. North Carolina. In their holding, the justices stated that cyberspace “is one of the most important places to exchange views.” Justice Kennedy went so far as to even compare the internet to a public forum, such as a public street or park. If this comparison continues to grow, a possible response would be to hold online platforms, private or public, to First Amendment standards. Justice Hugo Black once stated, “The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it.” However, legal experts see it unlikely that courts will see social media platforms as completely state actors any time soon.
If Facebook changes its policies and begins censoring political posts and advertisements, it may lead to a very slippery slope. It could possibly open the floodgates to claims of censorship, political bias, and discrimination. Whatever algorithm or artificial intelligence Facebook would implement to do this would require a lot of work to perfect it. Otherwise, the consequences may be very grave. At the end of the day, Americans are left to decide if they want giant tech companies to have the power to regulate American democracy, or if they trust the government enough to let American democracy regulate them.