Many social media firebrands find themselves without a platform all of a sudden. As of May 2, Facebook and Instagram have banned the accounts of several extremist voices, mostly from the far-right of the political spectrum. The deplatformed include, among others, Alex Jones, Infowars, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, and Paul Nehlen.
According to The Atlantic , Infowars is subject to the strictest ban. It reports that “Facebook and Instagram will remove any content containing Infowars videos, radio segments, or articles (unless the post is explicitly condemning the content)." The other figures have had their personal accounts banned, along with “any accounts set up in their likeness." However, Facebook and Instagram users can still use their accounts to praise the removed figures and share related content.
The ban is only the most recent part of an ongoing effort by social media companies to balance freedom of speech with freedom from hate speech. It’s a tight balancing act.
Some lawmakers, such as United States Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris, see policing hate speech as a necessary step to protect democracy and prevent right-wing terrorism. “If you profit off of hate, if you act as a megaphone for misinformation or cyber warfare. If you don’t police your platforms, we are going to hold you accountable," Harris said at a recent fundraising dinner for the NAACP, according to The Hill .
Other political leaders, including President Trump, see social media platforms removing controversial users as a politically-biased effort to suppress self-expression. “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH!" he tweeted on May 3. “It’s getting worse and worse for conservatives on social media," he added in a follow-up tweet.
One consideration the President does not make is whether forcing social media companies to give equal treatment to all voices, regardless of how extreme, violates those organizations’ freedom of speech. For example, should Facebook be able to remove what it considers toxic users or content as a business decision, or as a means of expressing its own freedom of speech?
The answer to this may lie in how social media companies identify themselves. Are they tech platforms or content publishers? If they consider themselves publishers, which make editorial decisions about the content they feature, they’re fully within their rights to censor whichever voices they please. As a tech platform, however, it’s more complicated. If social media companies claim to be neutral platforms, they obligate themselves to treat all voices, whether or not they disagree with said voices, as more or less equal.
In the end, how the United States decides to handle social media platforms and their sometimes-toxic users boils down to one age-old question: Where, as a society, do we choose to prioritize freedom to, and where do we prioritize freedom from? When it comes to online speech, it seems the answer changes depending where you identify on the political spectrum.