Internet giants approach the censorship point of no return

The apparently coordinated banning of conspiracy site InfoWars has brought to a head the role of social media companies in censoring public discussion.

InfoWars is headed by Alex Jones, a polemicist who likes to shout his often highly questionable views and theories at the camera. He has a large following and frequently says things that are offensive to many but, to date, he seems to have been accepted at part of the public debate mix, albeit a relatively extreme one.

However last week YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Spotify all took down content and channels from InfoWars on the grounds that it had broken their rules. This move was celebrated by many opponents of InfoWars but also called into question the grounds for taking the action and whether those rules are being applied equally to all.

Unsurprisingly Jones thinks it’s a conspiracy, but a number of other commentators are asking whether social media censorship rules are more strict for right leaning commentators than those on the left. Conservative publication Breitbart noted that groups such as Antifa – a militant far-left organisation – seems to escape unpunished for public statements that are at least as questionable.

And then there’s the matter of free speech in general, and more specifically censorship. Most people accept there has to be some limit on what can be said in public, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre or explicitly calling for a crime to be committed, and the useful debate focuses on where that limit should be, as implemented by law.

But social media platforms are private companies and are thus free to implement their own policies independent of laws and apparent public will. For some time they have been censoring speech that would be allowed by law, which is their prerogative, but since most Western public discussion now takes place via this oligopoly of platforms, apparent coordinated action by them becomes a matter of public concern.

This concern is amplified when there is a perception of political bias behind the censorship decisions. Silicon Valley is generally considered to tend very much to the left of the political spectrum and social media seems to be especially twitchy about commentary deemed to be from the ‘far right’.

As the location for the most heated public debate, Twitter is the social media platform at the front line of the censorship issue. Intriguingly it has so far declined to ban InfoWars, despite evidence that it has violated Twitter rules. Of all the platforms Twitter seems to be having the most nuanced and sophisticated internal discussion on censorship, as evidenced by this NYT piece and the tweet below from CEO Jack Dorsey.

On top of the ethical and philosophical questions raised by the perception of selective censorship by social media companies there are also commercial ones. When YouTube started demonetizing videos it was in response to complaints from advertisers about having their brands placed alongside content ‘incompatible with their values’ or something like that. But there is a real danger, thanks to phenomena like the Streisand effect, that high profile censorship such as this will permanently drive traffic away from their platforms and create the demand for fresh competitors.

Sooner or later the big internet companies surely have to explicitly detail the cut off point for what speech they consider ‘unacceptable’ and clearly demonstrate they are implementing them even-handedly, or face an increasing backlash. It seems appropriate to conclude by referring the discussion to a couple of prominent YouTubers who, while no fans of InfoWars, are very concerned about selective censorship.