Free speech, the media and social media: Should all platforms be absolutist on content they allow or publish?

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Controversial right – wing radio presenter and conspiracy theorist of Infowars, Alex Jones has reportedly been banned from Faceboook and YouTube. Apparently some of his podcasts have also been pulled by Apple and Spotify.

Jones is infamous for calling 2012’s Sandy Hook school massacre a hoax and claiming that the September 11 attacks were staged.

Facebook has defended it’s decision, accusing Jones of ‘glorifying violence’, and using ‘dehumanising language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants’.

Somewhat surprisingly, Twitter hasn’t followed YouTube’s and Facebook’s footsteps. Jones’ official Twitter account is still active.

Social media, traditional media and free speech

Did Facebook and Google/ YouTube violate freedom of speech as protected in the US Constitution? No. The First Amendment of the US Constitution:

…protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference.  (emphasis mine).

The First Amendment of the US Constitution specifically prohibits any government restricting any US citizen’s right to freedom of expression and also prohibits the US government from creating a theocracy and allow citizens freed9m to make up their own minds about belief. It also protects freedom of association. This doesn’t mean that companies like Google/ YouTube and Facebook can’t set standards on what can and can’t be uploaded or published on those platforms. I believe that media and social media platforms have the right to protect their brand by not allowing what they consider extremism, advocating for jihad, etc.

I’m going to talk about this by referring back to the Sky News Australia controversy last Sunday, when far – Right extremist, Blair Cottrell was given free reign on The Adam Giles’ Show. Sky News Australia’s decision to allow Cottrell to express extremist views largely unchallenged caused some brands such as Specsavers and Huggies to pull their sponsorship in revolt, despite condemnation from presenters such as Andrew Bolt, Laura Jayes and David Speers and the regret expressed by the – then Sky News Australia News Director, Greg Byrnes.

This is why, while I do get the arguments for a lack of restrictions in free speech in the legal sense, I also support the right for companies, especially in the media and social media, to maintain certain standards and limits on what can be said on their programs and platforms. What they allow, I believe, can affect their branding, either positively or negatively.

However, I do think companies like Facebook and YouTube should be consistent. Facebook in particular has come under fire in the past for allegedly silencing conservative posts, while not deleting antisemitic or other hate comments, posts or pages. They have also come under fire for allowing violent or sexual content that should be prohibited in their Community Standards, while deleting images of women breastfeeding their babies. Consistency needs to be key.

Should a platform simply ban speech because of clashing political views? Well, I argue again, that legally, there’s nothing stopping them, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. Last year during the same – sex marriage debate in Australia, Facebook was attacked for pulling down posts and disabling the account of one of the founders of FamilyVoice Australia. This, in my view, was a stupid move by Facebook. They reversed the decision after presenters from Sky News Australia confronted them about it. To my knowledge, after that, all the original content was put back and all associated accounts were active.

Bloggers and moderators of news sites such as news.com.au, Herald Sun, and Mamamia should maintain the freedom to accept or reject any comments that they see fit. Arguably, this may be seen as limiting debate, but, honestly, it should be the moderators’ or creators’ prerogative. They do have a product and reputation to maintain.

To me, it boils down to this: while people shouldn’t be prosecuted for what they say (apart from libel or death threats), they should still be held accountable, at least in the public square. Not every opinion needs to be tolerated or given a platform, especially if an extremist view goes unchallenged.

What do you think of Google/ YouTube and Facebook’s decision to suspend Alex Jones from their platforms? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

Disclaimer:

In my blog post about Sky News Australia, I said that Newscorp owned Win and Ten. I was wrong. Ten was bought by US’s CBS late last year. If I remember correctly, when Ten started getting into financial trouble, there was talk about Murdoch/ Newscorp buying and trying to rescue it, but CBS bet them to it. Win is owned by Bruce Gordon. Their parent company is Oberon Broadcasters Pty Ltd.

Update: 

Here is a contrary view of what I said about the Alex Jones controversy. Sticking to his principles, Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski slammed Facebook’s, Google and the other platforms for de – platforming Jones.

I think Kulinski has a point, however, I can’t help but think that social media and media should be able to preserve their commercial reputation and limit the people who breach their standards, given that they are consistent. I’m not sure. I’d really like to know what you all think about this.

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