Social Media Censorship–Is It Real?

Commentary, Government, Eamonn Brosnan

Against the frenzy of inaccurate and manipulative information consistently roaring through our social media sites, the companies that manage these sites, like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, have been trying to wage a war against misinformation. However, they always seem to be two steps behind. 

Initially, in an effort to keep up with the sheer volume of material, these companies were relying  upon community reporting. But this was easily abused by groups who had an agenda; the groups would target those YouTube channels or Facebook pages that appeared to disagree with their political motives by reporting their content as “hate speech” or offensive. Then, the guardians of our social media began to employ automated content readers and algorithms to try to catch the incidents of “violation of community standards.” But that has not gone very far either. 

Of course, the idea that there is some common “community standard” across the globe is laughable in its naiveté. Even Canada and the US don’t have matching laws for what is permissible on broadcast television, much less trying to match community standards in Saudi Arabia or Brazilian morés. Regardless, imposing a “community standard” is often viewed as a form of censorship, and, when it comes to political views, many people are, in fact,  more sensitive about restricting a political commentator than about confining foul language.

Nevertheless, these are private companies, who are free to censor any material found on their pages. Neither the US’ nor Canada’s laws that guarantee freedom of speech extend to the private corporations’ media platforms. And although these legal standards, the American 1st Amendment and Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are expressly in place to guarantee protection of freedoms (including the freedom of speech) from impediment by the government, they are not applied to the private sector such as social media corporations. Hence, the corporations have no legal requirement to provide a platform to anyone and, at the same time, can quite arbitrarily elect to terminate a relationship with anyone, for any reason.

But freedom of expression on YouTube or Facebook is what is generally expected. And that is often considered as a matter of trust.    

So should these companies be taken to court for antitrust violations? In my opinion, they do not meet this test (full disclosure, I’m not a lawyer). I discussed this issue in my previous article. To recap, the test for whether a company is a monopoly goes to marketplace share, and the business that these companies are in is internet advertising. This is where they generate their revenue, and none of them come close to the minimum level of market share that has ever been used in the past, by any court.

In any case, some people have been alleging that there is a targeted project to silence conservative commentators. In reality, we only remember the cases where someone with whom we agree has been silenced. We rarely register when it happens to people of other political shades. 

One of the most famous and scandalous incidents of a complete ban on YouTube and Facebook was the case of Alex Jones, a famously loud blowhard who has specialized in frothily creating a mad variety of conspiracy theories. Personally, I am not a fan of Jones, but I am surely against censorship on general principle l. I find myself in agreement with Ted Cruz on this topic who wrote in his tweet: “Am no fan of Jones … but who the hell made Facebook the arbiter of political speech?” 

I do have to admit, my gut response was quite similar to Cruz’s, but after a sober reconsideration, I would like to put forth an opposing understanding of the situation.

Facebook and Youtube are private companies and are also at the whim of the marketplace. YouTube has recently made several changes that have impacted a wide variety of independent political commentators, irrespective of their political leaning. Here is just a small sampling to give you an idea of the lack of political targeting: on the left-David Pakman and Sam Seder, in the centre-Sam Harris and Joe Rogan, and on the right-Alex Jones and Steve Crowder. All of these individuals have been airing grievances against YouTube and how it appears to be fastidious at implementing its policy. But with the exception of Alex Jones, who was simply banned, the others were all impacted by YouTube’s new recommendation algorithm and by a strategic policy of demonetizing videos (a ban for refusing to place revenue-generating ads on videos that have been identified as contentious). 

Patreon, a website that allows bloggers to seek patron financial support from their followers, has been cracking down on certain individuals leading Jordan Peterson (a right of centre Canadian academic and a political commentator) to co-found an initiative to crowdfund an alternative platform. 

And that is the real solution to all of our social media concerns. 

YouTube is currently occupying a niche in the marketplace that has not yet seen competition. Surely, it is backed by the strength of Google’s financial depth and programming skills, but at the end of the day, it is a website with, and for, users. If enough people would like a different platform, they can band together to finance a new platform to be constructed. This is a free and open market. In fact, YouTube/Google can no more prohibit anyone else from opening a competing site than they can stop the rain from falling in Vancouver.

While the entrance to the market might be more expensive today than it was when YouTube was first created, in reality, there are currently many companies and even individuals who could afford to fund such a creation – out of pocket or in conjunction with others. None of the existing social media companies should be viewed as monopolies, and none of them are able to block or prevent a competitor from joining the marketplace. Indeed, there is truly no reason why a YouTube competitor cannot be launched. 

So all of us may need to complain less about the situation, only appearing as impossible, and simply work towards a new solution.