The Internet Needs a Bill of Rights

One of the great things about using the internet is expression. Nothing feels better than voicing an opinion or debating ideas with people who have different beliefs, and finding middle ground on specific issues. Unfortunately, some political opinions are allowed while others are not because they are deemed too hateful to see. Recently, Alex Jones, host of Infowars, a news site that frequently spreads false news, was banned on Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Spotify, LinkedIn, and Youtube, and it indicates a dangerous precedent set by social media companies.

Silicon Valley companies have always been open about how they welcome people from every area of life. However, one thing that all of these social media companies have nowadays is a policy about hateful conduct. This policy usually states that promoting violence, directly attacking or threatening people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease, along with owning an account whose primary purpose is to infringe on these rules is not allowed. For a while now, Twitter has been going on a massive banning spree. Twitter banned far-right accounts Britain First, the American Nazi Party, the American Resistance Party, a right-wing western chauvinist group named the Proud Boys, and Alex Jones. Alex Jones is well known for his conspiracy theories and false reports, such as the Pizzagate conspiracy, where he speculated that Hillary Clinton and former campaign chairman John Podesta were running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. The reason these accounts were banned was under the platform’s policy banning speech against protected groups. However, not only right-wingers have been censored. Although they are not the majority of hate speech bans, several left-wing accounts have been banned as well. @Reaghanhunt, a left-wing Twitter user who was banned off of the site for a Trump supporter discrimination joke; @CultofDusty, a left-wing youtuber who brings an atheist perspective to religion; and @Demotimvator, who identifies as a left-wing troll; have all been banned for hate speech following Twitter’s new crackdown.

The main problem with companies’ hate speech guidelines is that they can be incredibly vague. For example, Twitter states in their hate speech guidelines that earlier named behavior that incites general fear in the earlier named groups is a punishable offense. This is flawed in itself because with this rule in effect those protected groups can claim that opposing viewpoints can make them feel unsafe, and the opposing debater will simply be banned even if they have done nothing wrong. It is for this reason that the internet needs a “bill of rights” so that social media companies cannot regulate people on their platform, especially when the company has openly admitted that they are politically biased. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, has stated on August 18th, 2018, that “We need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is more left-leaning.” It is impossible to know what goes on at Twitter headquarters, but if a company takes a political stance on issues that they are not meant to moderate, that will most likely lead to the company giving special treatment to people that they agree with. An unnamed federal judge ruled that the President’s Twitter account is a public forum, as people address and post opinions on it. Because of that, Twitter is a public forum, and should meet First Amendment regulations.

Portland resident Jayson Shanafelt, a frequent user of Twitter, says “People always throw around the First Amendment…It’s a complex issue, when you live in a post-truth era, but there is a fine line….I don’t personally care for Alex Jones, but he was clearly violating the terms of service, and if he is inciting hate, then they were right to ban him…There are certain things you just can’t say. However, my feelings on this are mixed.”

However, most member of the media, including USA Today, had a different take on the Alex Jones banning. USA Today’s Kurt Bardella stated, “If he continues to allow hate and real fake news live and thrive on his platform, then he shares responsibility for the consequences to our society….Allowing people like Alex Jones to continue using your platform under the guise of free speech is like giving weapons to terrorists while advocating for peace.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that not giving people the right to speak their mind, however wrong it might be, and actively censoring them, draws people to their cause. If Twitter and other big tech companies did not go out of their way to censor them, they would diminish in size, because their ideas are so far-fetched that most people would never go along with them. However, when you start censoring your political opposition, they garner sympathy because they do not even get to say their thoughts on a platform where one is supposed to be able to speak their mind.

Legally, Twitter did nothing wrong by banning him. However from a moral standpoint it is wrong because when people, especially big tech companies, aim to censor political discourse, they always start with the extreme fringe people first. One may not like Alex Jones, or any of the numerous other extremist groups banned, but this is not a left vs right issue. This is an issue of political censorship, and they are using Alex Jones and all of the other accounts to set a precedent. Free speech is vital to solve current issues, and Twitter and all the other big tech companies need to learn that censoring people in what could be deemed as a public forum violates the First Amendment right to free speech, and these companies need to be held accountable.

 

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