Social media is finding out with a decided quickness that censoring conservative voices isn’t going to work quite as easily as they thought.
First was Mark Zuckerberg’s two days on Capitol Hill this month, where the Facebook CEO didn’t necessarily acquit himself fantastically when it came to how his social media giant had treated viral superstar Trump supporters Diamond and Silk and may have opened his company to a world of legal hurt over censorship issues.
Now, Twitter is in the spotlight after content it curated referred to African-American conservative commentator Candace Owens — also known as Red Pill Black — as “far-right.”
The whole thing began after Owens was mentioned during Kanye West’s political tweetstorm which began last week. Those tweets also had people implying Kanye was mentally ill for expressing support for conservative ideas and the president, but that’s for another article — in fact, one I’ve already written.
The point is that this showed up on Twitter’s news vertical after West mentioned Owens:
Far right? Allow me to clarify: I believe the black community can do it without hand-outs. I believe the Democrats have strapped us to our past to prevent us from our futures. And I won’t stop fighting until all black Americans see that.
I’m not far right—I’m free. pic.twitter.com/wtqCuYPtM2
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 21, 2018
“Far right?” Owens responded.
“Allow me to clarify: I believe the black community can do it without hand-outs. I believe the Democrats have strapped us to our past to prevent us from our futures.
“And I won’t stop fighting until all black Americans see that. I’m not far right — I’m free,” she concluded.
The whole thing seemed to get lost in other kerfuffles — namely the monumental meeting on the Korean Peninsula and everything else regarding Kanye’s MAGA-burst — but it deserved to be addressed. Twitter’s news feed is, after all, highly influential, and calling a conservative commentator far-right seems to put her in league with ghouls like Richard Spencer and his ilk, simply for holding mainstream conservative opinions.
It may have taken the better part of a week, but Owens got an apology from @jack — that’s Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter.
“Hi Candace. I want to apologize for our labeling you ‘far right,’” Dorsey wrote Friday. “Team completed a full review of how this was published and why we corrected far too late (12 hrs after). There was a clear break in our curation process and understanding, and we’re fixing. Thanks for calling out.”
Hi Candace. I want to apologize for our labeling you “far right.” Team completed a full review of how this was published and why we corrected far too late (12 hrs after). There was a clear break in our curation process and understanding, and we’re fixing. Thanks for calling out.
— jack ??? (@jack) April 27, 2018
For her part, Owens was cordial.
“Thank you, Jack! I fully accept your apology,” she wrote.
“It’s important that despite political differences, we remember the human beings whose lives we impact. Perhaps the other platforms that ran away with this vicious smear, will follow your lead and right this wrong. Thank you again.”
Thank you, Jack! I fully accept your apology. It’s important that despite political differences, we remember the human beings whose lives we impact. Perhaps the other platforms that ran away with this vicious smear, will follow your lead and right this wrong.
Thank you again. https://t.co/FvfTxapp6R
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 27, 2018
While I do wish to believe that Jack Dorsey and his employees have done this because they genuinely believe a smear has been committed, it’s not difficult to see the convenience of this mea culpa, particularly when it occurred.
Both the Zuckerberg and the subsequent Diamond and Silk testimonies seemed to indicate that Facebook and other social media were curated — sometimes by political belief — as opposed to merely platforms for open expression.
As a private business, that’s their right, of course. The problem comes when you examine Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a snippet of legislation which has caused no small amount of controversy of late.
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” it states, noting that no legal liability will be ascribed to that interactive computer service upon “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”
This was in response to a body of case law — particularly Cubby v. CompuServe — which held that online providers were legally responsible for defamation and libel that happened on their services. A neutral digital platform which simply hosts content or restricts it isn’t liable under defamation law — they are considered an interactive computer service, exempt from traditional laws applied to publishers. It’s basically like holding a resident assistant who put up a bulletin board in a college dorm lobby legally responsible for a libelous accusation put on that board.
However, when these services become algorithmic curators of content, particularly when it takes a political slant (such as with Diamond and Silk, who were determined to be “unsafe to the community” by Facebook), there is a very good legal argument that they’ve become a publisher.
Indeed, asked by Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn whether or not “Facebook and other social media platforms are not neutral platforms but bear some responsibility for the content,” Zuckerberg admitted, “I agree that we’re responsible for the content.”
That’s a tacit admission that, at the moment, Facebook — and one might assume by extension, social media — are now not exempt under Section 230.
Now, if this interpretation of Section 230 carries the day there are two resolutions to this if social media services don’t want to be hit with an avalanche of litigation heretofore unseen in the digital era. One would be to carve out a new exemption for social media services. With the clear-cut bias against conservative voices, however, this is at the present moment unlikely to happen. The second is to go back to a wholly unregulated model, which may not even be possible at this point.
Nobody seems to be willing to make a Section 230 move against Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social media platforms as of yet, although Cornyn and his state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, certainly seemed to be willing to explore it. Keep in mind that it’s also unclear whether or not this interpretation of Section 230 and whether or not a platform like Facebook can ever truly become a publisher in the eyes of the law; there were certainly a flurry of articles after the hearings from left-leaning sources like LawFare Blog and TechDirt which posited — not wholly without merit — that such interpretations might hold up in court.
Of course, there’s also the fact that language could be excised or amended to deal with such censorship making social media platforms de jure publishers — something that’s not out of the question given who controls Congress and how deep conservative outrage over this is.
The point is that if conservative censorship continues on social media — and the numbers are clearly there to prove that’s what’s happening — legal action is bound to occur. Even if social media companies win the case, they still spend millions and get more bad publicity, driving even more conservatives and independents from the service. And even if Section 230 won’t be interpreted by the courts in the way that Cornyn and Cruz seem to interpret it, do they need yet another grilling before Congress on the matter?
Perhaps I should be happy with an apology to Candace Owens and leave it at that, even if it came six days later. After all, Candace Owens was. It’s just curious that Jack Dorsey — not a man predisposed to inter-party dialogue — seemed so eager (well, semi-eager, judging by the delay) to start apologizing for disparaging those who don’t agree with his company’s agenda.
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