Donnchadh Ó Conaill: Censorship And Platform Boots

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From top: US president Donald Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter last week; Donnchadh Ó Conaill

The removal of Donald Trump and others from social media platforms in response to last week’s events is just the latest salvo in a long-running dispute over free speech and social media moderation.

Very broadly, there are two popular opposing positions on the Night of the Long Digital Knives. The first is that it is censorship, systematically favouring one political outlook (or at any rate, penalising others), and it should worry even those of us who heartily dislike Trump and all his works.

The opposing view is that the social media platforms are private firms and they have every right to decide whether or not to host content. Indeed, to compel them to carry content which they find objectionable would infringe on their free speech rights.

In the time-honoured hairsplitting tradition I want to criticise each of these views. Ultimately I am probably more sympathetic to the first, but to start with let me say what I think is wrong about it.

Censorship can be defined in a variety of ways, many of which are ambiguous or metaphorical (e.g., silencing speech). Part of the problem is that the term ‘censorship’ has considerable rhetorical force, so there will always be the temptation to use it widely (compare with ‘fascism’). But there is also the question of properly categorising what has happened to Trump (and numerous others), in order to figure out how to best respond to it.

One well-established use of the term is that censorship is an infringement on someone’s right to express their opinions on some topic or other. This definition has the advantage of allowing that it is not only the state which can censor (so, for instance, the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists was an act of censorship).

It also clearly captures a way in which censorship is always morally objectionable: it is always objectionable to infringe on someone’s rights (and even if there are circumstances where it would be permissible, it is a necessary evil).

On this definition, Trump’s suspension from various platforms was not censorship. Your right to express your opinion is not a right to use someone else’s platform to do so. As a comparison, consider one’s right to get married. This is not a right to marry any individual one likes. Furthermore, one’s rights are not infringed if one is jilted by one’s soulmate, or indeed by everyone else.

There are two common responses to this kind of argument. The first is that the big social media companies form a monopoly, or more accurately an oligopoly, so there is in effect no alternative to using them. It is true that a small number of platforms have a dominant share of social media traffic. It is also true that some of the dominant social media companies benefit from network effects: the fact that many people already use them makes them attractive to other users, and so serves to entrench their market position.

What is much less clear is whether these companies meet another standard condition for forming an oligopoly: that there is no substitute service available. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all have existing competitors which are just as accessible to the consumer.

It is certainly correct that these competitors are less popular, and for that reason may be less effective as a means of expressing opinion or engaging with others – but one’s right to express opinions does not entail a right to use the most effective means of expressing them.

The other response is that social media is so ubiquitous in contemporary life that it should be treated as a utility, on a par with electricity or water. But this claim is also dubious. Apart from any other considerations, this claim overlooks the point that in many cases one can use a social media platform in different ways: one can have an account, or one can simply browse content without one.

For the utility claim to work in the present context, the claim must be that having an account on a social media platform is as vital for contemporary life as having running water in one’s house. And, to put it mildly, this is not obviously correct. I have no account on Twitter or YouTube. I have a Facebook account, and losing it would be very irritating, but no more than that.

That said, the second line of thought described at the start of this piece is plainly unsatisfying. Social media may not be an essential part of anyone’s life, but it has become extremely important for contemporary political discussion. That a small number of companies have such a large market share and the freedom to place very wide-ranging conditions on content is disturbing, even if you happen to agree with the conditions they choose.

In practice there are specific problems with how consistently these companies apply their rules and the lack of transparency in how they do so. More generally, even if social media companies cannot infringe on a person’s right to express their views, they can limit how effectively a person can express those views.

The correct way to think about the recent deplatformings, I suggest, is that the big social media firms are exercising a form of social domination: they can interfere more or less arbitrarily in the decisions of others (I have written elsewhere about how this idea of domination is relevant to cancel culture – see Letter 6 here).

The worry is that these firms, with limited democratic oversight, have the power to marginalise certain views by making it harder to find discussion of them. You might be happy to see The Donald booted off Twitter, but how happy would you be if, say, people expressing the view that giant corporations should pay more taxes were systematically deplatformed, or a platform’s algorithms made their content much harder to find?

Understood in this way, the problem is similar to that described by Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: a crucial public good (platforms enabling opinions to be expressed and discussed) is largely provided by privately owned for-profit entities. In this situation, tensions between the public good and the interests of the private firms are bound to arise.

Ideally there would be enough competing firms with different standards of moderation to offset the influence of any single platform or group of platforms, but this is arguably not happening (thanks to the network effects).

Finding a workable solution will take a good deal of technical know-how, political co-operation and a judicious balancing of competing priorities. But a good start would be to stop thinking about what happened as either censorship or as nothing to worry about.

Donnchadh Ó Conaill is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

Meanwhile…

Alick Douglas writes:

If you can get across the AR15 on the table (which isn’t referred to in the video), I thought this was a really thought provoking video on censoring and deplatforming in the context of the erasure of Parler. Karl (host) I believe has a day-job as an IT security consultant, and posts interesting content fairly frequently on that InRange channel. Nice historical content on the wild west too…

7 thoughts on “Donnchadh Ó Conaill: Censorship And Platform Boots

  1. Bruncvik

    “What is much less clear is whether these companies meet another standard condition for forming an oligopoly: that there is no substitute service available. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all have existing competitors which are just as accessible to the consumer.”

    I’m sorry, but this may not necessarily be true. I’ve seen multiple times that these small alternatives have been squashed by the large players. For example, Google is known for blocking competition from its Play Store (such as clients for Bitchute, an alternative to Youtube). Most recently, Parler, which was a competitor to Twitter, has been deplatformed not only by app stores and search engines, but also by its Web hosting provider, Amazon, and cut off by its payment processor. In the past, Gab, another competitor to Twitter, suffered a similar fate. In both cases, the services hosted content that was less harmful than what could be found on Twitter or Facebook, but because they declared their unwillingness to monitor their content (freedom of speech and all), they were either rendered invisible to the majority of population or outright destroyed. So, for all intents and purposes, a certain portion of the on-line population may feel that there are no alternative platforms for their speech.

    Reply
    1. Mr. T

      Agreed.
      Certain companies are operating using monopolistic practices which stop any competitor from having a chance.

      Several investigations are ongoing by EU into these companies, but the fines incurred will be trivial compared to the potential risk of a competitor gaining marketshare.

      Reply
    2. Donnchadh

      Thanks for that, Bruncvik. I wasn’t familiar with the Bitchute situation. Also, and I should have been clearer on this, I didn’t mean to suggest that the big social media platforms do not abuse their market position or their links to other platforms (as with Google and YouTube). My point was rather that as far as users are concerned, alternatives to the platforms I named are available.

      As regards Parler and Gab, I’m not sure I follow. As you say, these are competitors with Twitter – was Twitter involved in what happened to either of these?

      Reply
      1. Bruncvik

        You were talking about an oligopoly of the big three. As a result, I assumed that you were expecting the three companies to act in concert. I did not see any direct involvement of Twitter, the company, in bringing down Parler or Gab, and I don’t think statements by Jack Dorsey or other top managers would qualify as such here. However, if the oligopoly theory holds, the top tech companies may jointly control the industry, whether through direct contracts or unspoken quid pro quo.

        Reply
  2. Donnchadh

    Thanks again Bruncvik. Yes, I think for what happened to Parlor or Gab to show that the big social media platforms form an oligopoly, they would either have had to have acted in concert, or Twitter would have had to squashed Parlor or Gab by itself. And, as yet, I don’t think there’s evidence that this happened.

    Also, what took Parlor offline was action by Amazon web services, rather than action by any of the big three (though Google did block their app). Likewise, Gab went offline after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting because its host refused to continue providing service.

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    1. max

      probably a good thing parler was taken offline, the way it leaked personal information including the movements of its users was very amatuerish. Wont be surprised if half the people arrested for breaching will be convicted based on the evidence from parler alone.

      Have to remember as well that donald trump is a strong supporter of deplatforming people who threaten American democracy and sedition

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    2. Nigel

      I have no problem denouncing big tech oligopolys and think they are definitely not conducive to our freedoms and such, but gab and parler were shoddy, poorly constructed, insecure platforms primarily designed to harvest data and money from political extremists who would in a sane world be too toxic for mainstream platforms, but which has become mainstream on the right. So now mainstream right wing political ideas are too toxic for everybody else, so you either let them express that toxicity, which social media platforms did, largely unhindered, for the last four years, or when they finally go too far and you kick them off, thereby denying a platform to a mainstream political movement. It’s a weird position to be in, but bad and all as big tech are, it’s not their fault that the alternative platforms where mainstream right wing views can be freely and openly expressed were so badly set up that they couldn’t survive. I see no reason why with a little less cynical exploitation and a little more skill, viable alternatives for mainstream right-wing views couldn’t be established and flourish, but until that happens, the mainstream right will blame everyone else for things that are actually attributable to their own underlying toxicity.

      Reply

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