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Brian Mark Weber / May 18, 2018

The Cultural Shift Against Free Speech

Social media has changed the way American think about First Amendment issues.

At first, Twitter seemed like a great idea: quickly and concisely communicating our thoughts with just a few keystrokes, rather than babbling on and on. Still, something didn’t seem quite right about that 140-character limitation, even when it was doubled to 280 characters last year. Somehow, it still seemed a restriction on our speech.

But that was just the beginning. This simple social media platform is now going far beyond limiting our character-count to controlling what we think and how we interact with our fellow citizens.

One of the core problems created by social media behemoths like Twitter and Facebook is not that their policies are posing any serious legal threat to the First Amendment. As David French writes at National Review, “The law of free speech has mainly improved. Americans might have more legal defenses against government censorship now than they ever have before. If the government moves against your speech based on your viewpoint and you fight back, you’re likely to win.”

But social media platforms can bypass the Constitution altogether by creating a paradigm shift in the way current and future generations understand the important role free speech plays in our society. French adds, “The culture of free speech has decayed. Individuals and organizations are far more sensitive and far less tolerant of dissent than they were even in the recent past.”

Twitter thinks it has the answer, but its users won’t be freer to speak their minds.

In 2016, Twitter launched an Orwellian “Trust & Safety Council” made up of more than 40 organizations, some of which have a history of suppressing free speech. Having thus created a council with representation from a very limited range of ideological perspectives, the company tipped its authoritarian hand.

Twitter explained that in order for users to “express themselves freely and safely on Twitter, we must provide more tools and policies.”

Somehow we’ve managed to build a thriving civilization without having our social interactions with others flagged by an intrusive authority, but now Twitter thinks we need just that. After all, society itself has embedded cultural norms and practices over time to ensure civil discourse. But these cultural norms are actually threatened by the advent of technology and the pervasive use of social media by millions of Americans.

Sure, some of Twitter’s changes seem benign on the surface. For example, the latest push by CEO Jack Dorsey purports to focus on people who are routinely blocked by other users, those who send tweets to accounts they don’t follow, and those who launch multiple accounts from a single IP address. But how far will this go? Dorsey himself said that “this is a step, but we can see this going quite far.”

Indeed, it may well go too far.

This week, The Verge posted an internal Google video imagining a future in which social media is used not merely to referee online interaction, but to socially engineer our entire society.

If that doesn’t send chills down your spine, then maybe we’re already closer to that world than we realize.

For now, Twitter asserts that it’s merely trying to rid the platform of “spammy behavior.” But earlier this year, James O'Keefe’s Project Veritas revealed (via The Daily Wire) “Twitter employees admitting that they ‘shadow ban’ right-leaning accounts, which essentially bans them from the platform without letting them know that they have been banned while allowing left-leaning accounts to slip through without the same scrutiny.”

That wouldn’t be so bad if Twitter were merely trying to filter out inappropriate or abusive online behavior without regard to ideology. But while middle-of-the-road conservative groups and individuals are being shadow-banned, Twitter has no qualms about allowing groups like Hamas to freely express their hatred and their calls for violence simply because Hamas is a democratically elected government entity that claims to be part of the Middle East “peace process.” Remember, Hamas was deemed a foreign terrorist organization by none other than President Bill Clinton in 1997, and it orchestrated the recent violence on the Gaza border that lead to the deaths of dozens of its soldiers.

Our Founding Fathers wisely protected us against government’s intrusion into what we say and how we say it. Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms, however, are subversively changing the very way Americans think about communication.

And these changes are also occurring in academia and in the workplace, where the anti-free speech culture being fostered online is also part of the broader culture. The result is that we’ve become conditioned by social media to accept environments in which simply sharing an opinion can lead to being flagged, suppressed or outright banned from a social community. This is having a ripple effect on the way Americans interact with one another away from social media.

Of course, no one is suggesting that the government take action against private companies. As Reason’s Robby Soave writes, “Twitter is a private company. It is free to make whatever speech rules it wants. Forcing Twitter to permit more kinds of speech would not actually be pro-free speech — in fact, it would violate the First Amendment.”

And that’s why one of the greatest challenges our society will face in the 21st century is maintaining a culture of free speech when so many of us discuss politics and social issues not in the public square where everyone can speak freely, but in the privately-run realms of the Internet.

The time has come for Americans to speak up, before it’s too late. This is no longer a discussion about cleaning up social media, but about preserving a civilization whose great strength has always derived from its First Amendment.

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