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Twitter is Right About the ‘Public Conversation’

I respect—and support—Twitter’s decision allowing Alex Jones to continue using the service. No other social network is as much about free expression, whether or not you agree with the viewpoints expressed there. I see YouTube in similar vain and, as such, wag my finger in condemning “shame on you” for following Apple’s lead and pulling Jones’ channel(s). (Vain is purposefully misused to make a point that I hope you get.)

For the record: I have never listened to or watched even a snippet of InfoWars. Meaning: I don’t stand up for Jones’ viewpoints but for his expressing them across social networks. 

Social Network Contract
Here’s the problem: Defenders of the Jones whacking argue that freedom of speech is a construct between government and its citizens; businesses like Apple aren’t obligated to support such expression. I agree. But, and let’s put that BUT in all caps, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube have engaged in a de facto social contract to be independent platforms of self-expression and engagement—or so it was before Donald Trump’s presidential election victory and subsequent outcry against so-called “fake news”.

Propaganda is as old as the Republic, folks; fake is the idea that fake news is a recent phenomenon. Liberals lost the White House—that’s the difference today. What was tolerated before suddenly is intolerable. Hence, censoring Jones—and others.

I don’t fault Apple or Spotify for removing Jones from their respective services. Neither primarily evolved into a place for free expression. Sure, Apple provides a hugely popular platform for podcasting, but it is contained within iTunes.

By contrast, Twitter and YouTube are tools that the masses have long used to self-publish—and both have been instrumental during periods of cultural or societal upheaval—like protests on the streets of Tehran nine years ago. That event marked the emergence of Twitter and YouTube—to lesser degree Facebook—as social platforms for disseminating raw, real-time, uncensored information. Hence, the aforementioned social contract, whether or not the companies accept it as part of their “terms of service”.

Whose Values?
Twitter is right to stand by Jones, whether or not anyone at the company accepts his voice (which I understand from second-hand reading is hard-right-leaning conspiratorial). YouTube is wrong to dump the commentator, which understates the context: The action came after Apple booted Jones’ podcast(s) out the door, which is way worse. So what? Apple CEO Tim Cook sets ToS policies for YouTube now? The whole thing stinks of a Silicon Valley liberal elite echo chamber, which, strangely, is a worthy conspiracy theory for Jones to spout about. (Someone tell me: Has he?)

Absolutely, based on how subscribers use them: Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube are preeminent platforms for self-expression. Removing accounts for expressed viewpoints, using ToS policies as justification, is censorship that defies—no defiles—the democratic spirit that these services foster; or they did. Censorship is a slippery slope, because someone makes a value judgement about what content is acceptable and which isn’t. Values change across and among generations.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gets it, when explaining why the service didn’t boot Jones: “If we succumb and simply react to outside pressure, rather than straightforward principles we enforce (and evolve) impartially regardless of political viewpoints, we become a service that’s constructed by our personal views that can swing in any direction. That’s not us”. Nor should it be.

We are engaged in infowars—and I do not refer to Jones’ program. There is tumultuous cultural division about acceptable values. To reiterate and expand: By blacklisting Jones, social network providers make value judgements for their subscribers. The position is arrogant and much more: The underlying outcry against so-called hate speech, fake news, and right-wing extremism presumes that a large portion of the populace is stupid; the masses cannot decide for themselves what is true or right, so the Silicon Valley intelligentsia will decide for them.

Truth of the supposition is immaterial to the impression. The social contract is binding: Either services like Twitter and YouTube are platforms for free-expression or they are not. If not, then the services should say so, explicitly. Reddit has done so, in some respects with respect to newer curation policies.

There Is Another Way
It’s a trend now for social networks to more aggressively police and purge accounts in the wake of the Republican Party’s Washington takeover. I use takeover gingerly, when seeing how ineffective and divided is the so-called united front in D.C. Liberals should be laughing at the debacle, rather than whining about fake news’ so-called role in an election two years ago or in the present pressuring social networks to eliminate right-wing proponents they don’t want influencing the 2018 midterm elections.

Account purges are broader than politics, however. The turnover in Washington has churned up cultural values differences in ways not seen in decades. Content that offends somebody is scrubbed by some social networks under all kinds of labels, with “hate speech” being one of the preeminent. I say: Offend everyone, and let the users engaged in the social contract make the value judgements.

Content curation can, and should, be a natural process. That is the magic that makes social networks work so well as platforms for self-expression. Supporters and detractors will engage in comments or replies. Yes, they will argue and many will be angry or hateful. They are the censors. As much as capitalist competition preserves free markets, social commenting preserves and extends free speech. Twitter and YouTube should let users be self-censors—and they will be. Censorship isn’t the platform provider’s role.

By doing so, Twitter and its counterparts preserve the public trust given to them as part of the Fifth Estate. According to Pew Research, two-thirds of Americans “report that they get at least some of their news on social media—with two-in-ten doing so often”. Some people will argue that number warrants social networks’ weeding out the so-called fake news riffraff.

I disagree, as presumably does Dorsey, who tweets: “Accounts like Jones’ can often sensationalize issues and spread unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s critical journalists document, validate, and refute such information directly so people can form their own opinions. This is what serves the public conversation best”.

As a journalist, I wholeheartedly support this idea. Twitter is all about the “public conversation”; journalists and social network users should be the fact-checkers and the curators. Discourse is the foundation of the Republic’s democratic principles. We preserve and extend them through the “public conversation”.

Photo Credit: Garrett Heath

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