Twitter’s censuring, if not censoring, President Trump’s controversial tweet threatening to use force to quell riots protesting the death of George Floyd, and Facebook, refusing to follow the lead of its rival social network, has reignited the controversy leading many Facebook employees to stage a walk out and some to even quit their coveted jobs in protest.
But can social media companies censor hate speech while also providing an unbiased platform for free speech that they claim to provide?
Some conservatives argue social networking companies support free speech only when the speech aligns with the political views of the company.
Richard Hania, found that of the 22 notable accounts suspended by Twitter, 21 accounts had supported President Trump and only one of those accounts had supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections.
Candace Owens, a journalist, retweeted the racist tweets of Sarah Jeong, an editor at theNew York Times, but substituted the word “white” for “black” and “Jews”. Owens had her account suspended, while Jeong wasn’t even reprimanded, suggesting that different social groups have different standards for hate speech.
Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, at a meeting with lawmakers admitted that his company’s censoring a video of Live Action, a pro life advocacy group, was biased, but argued that there was no widespread bias in moderating content. Jack Dorsey, the Twitter CEO also argued that although the company’s employees are very left leaning, it has no influence on content moderation.
Whether or not hate speech censorship is biased, it would be imprudent to be oblivious that the subjectivity of what constitutes hate speech leaves open the possibility of viewpoint discrimination and arbitrary censorship.
If a group claiming itself to be a religious cult engages in organized, indisputably repugnant behavior like child abuse, should the group be more protected from criticism — as criticism of religion is typically considered hate speech — than any other group which engages in a similar behavior but has no religious affiliation?
Did Erika Christakis, a lecturer at Yale University who was forced to resign for speaking out against censoring Halloween costumes cross the line cross the line between free speech and hate speech?
I don’t condone the harms of hate speech. Hate speech has no place in a civilized society, and social media companies are certainly noble in their intentions to provide every netizen a dignified cyberlife.
It is imperative that we reflect as a society on the causes of hate speech and how to address its root cause.
But attempting to censor hate speech is a slippery slope that could eventually make social media forums that have come to be hotspots of free speech and debate, into echo chambers fueled by the hegemony of popular views.
Ashwin Murthy is a software engineer at LinkedIn and a and a software engineer at a social networking company.