- The problem of toxic content on social media came to a head on Wednesday, in a surreal sequence of events.
- The US refused to sign an international agreement aimed at stamping out terrorist and extremist content online.
- Instead, the Trump administration launched an online tool to collect examples of people being censored on social-media platforms because of their political views.
- It’s an absurd contortion of the free-speech debate that shows how far apart the country is.
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Americans finally agree on something: there’s a big problem with the stuff that people can say and do on social media.
Unfortunately, the country isn’t looking at the same news feed.
After years of misogynistic and racist trolling on platforms like Twitter and rampant, dangerous conspiracy theory videos on YouTube, the situation reached its breaking point in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
The horrific massacre of 51 people, broadcast live on Facebook, galvanised society to finally take action. On Wednesday more than a dozen countries, as well as companies like Facebook and Google, signed the “Christchurch Call” – a somewhat vague but well-intentioned agreement to work to stamp out extremist and terrorist content online.
France, Canada, India, and 15 other countries linked arms to declare their commitment to stop something that everyone agrees is repugnant. That is, everyone except the US.
For reasons not entirely clear, the US said it was “not currently in a position to join the endorsement,” and cited free speech.
Lest anyone think the US government is blind to the social-media problem though, the Trump administration unveiled its own homegrown effort to ensure a healthy online discourse.
In a surreal sequence of events on Wednesday, hours after news emerged of the US rejection of the Christchurch accord, the White House launched an online tool to collect examples of political censorship and bias against American users on social media.
“SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS should advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” the online form, posted on an official White House web page read. “Yet too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies. No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.”
President Trump, one of Twitter’s most followed and prolific users, believes that conservatives are being muzzled on social media. That’s not fair.
Of course, freedom of speech, in a constitutional sense, does not apply to private forums like Facebook or Twitter. The First Amendment prohibits the government from censoring or punishing people for what they say or write. Private entities, however, can muzzle, or give a microphone to, whomever they want.
One of the big exceptions however, is speech that’s considered dangerous or harmful. In those situations, the government can step in and clamp down.
Until Wednesday, most reasonable people would have thought that exception applied to things like livestreamed massacres. Now we know the real pressing issue, according to Trump. The one that rises to such a level that it demands the government step in and regulate speech in the private sphere, is how unfairly Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos have been treated.
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