Online Speech Threatened by Social Media Censorship, Experts Say

May 21, 2020 Updated: May 23, 2020

A surge in topics being moderated and censored by social media companies is causing alarm among some experts who say we’re moving rapidly toward losing our online freedoms.

Most recently, platforms have started moderating CCP virus-related content they deem to be misinformation. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said the platform would be “removing information that is problematic” including “anything that goes against World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.”

Mark Grabowski, an associate professor specializing in cyber law and digital ethics at Adelphi University, said there’s a double standard when it comes to online speech, in particular with virus-related topics, as of late.

“In some cases, the [virus] content was produced by authoritative sources like physicians, professors, and epidemiologists,” he told The Epoch Times. “Meanwhile, these same platforms are promoting highly speculative opinions by people who are completely unqualified to speak on the topic.”

Twitter recently highlighted a news story about Melinda Gates stating governors were opening states too early. “She’s not an expert on this matter; she has an MBA,” Grabowski said.

The moderation of virus content has become an issue, he said, pointing to studies stating that excessive homogeneity of ideas can lead to stagnation and poor problem-solving. “Liberals and conservatives alike can fall prey to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias,” he said.

YouTube also has been automatically deleting comments that mention some Chinese phrases commonly used to criticize the Chinese Communist Party. This moderation and censorship is being used on a growing number of topics, according to Grabowski, who called the trend “very troubling”—especially with an upcoming U.S. election.

“It’s becoming like Chinese-style censorship where dissident viewpoints and even certain words and phrases are forbidden,” he said. “And, while such censorship doesn’t violate the First Amendment, it isn’t keeping with the spirit of freedom of speech.”

Some companies detailed instances in which they’ve been moderated out.

Austin Wolff, director of research at the Novus Center, an anti-aging clinic, said one of the company’s videos was taken off YouTube recently because it was showing an inhalation therapy treatment.

“We show more graphic treatments on our channel like scalp and knee injections, but someone breathing from a mask was apparently too ‘sensational’ for YouTube,” he said via email. “I would call it a violation of free speech, but it’s YouTube’s platform. I guess they can do as they please.”

Grabowski said there’s no guarantee of freedom of speech on social media platforms, noting that the First Amendment prevents only the government from censoring speech.

“Giant social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube control cyberspace and are effectively acting as quasi-states to reshape political speech,” he said. “You’re living in a bubble if you don’t think social media censorship is occurring.”

‘Control Over the Message’

Social media platforms are limiting the reach of posts that contain words or references to the virus unless they’re from trusted sources, experts say. But it’s the platforms that are deciding who these trusted sources are, said Andrew Selepak, social media professor at the University of Florida.

“In essence, the platforms are acting as gatekeepers to information, which is the exact opposite of the purpose behind social media, in that it should not limit the voice of users,” he told The Epoch Times.

If the online public square is only limited to voices vetted as acceptable by social media companies, “we may never know whose voices are being limited or silenced and they may never be able to tell us,” Selepak said.

There are solid arguments to limit some speech in cases of inciting violence, such as ISIS using platforms to spread its violent ideology and recruit members. If the only option for people is to not use the platform, and there are no other alternatives, “then free speech is truly silenced,” Selepak said.

Recently YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms took down a documentary on the virus titled “Plandemic.” The removal of the video sparked controversy after people complained about censorship abuses.

Platforms said the reason for removing the documentary included “halting the spread of misinformation” and “violating the community guidelines,” according to ABC27. The documentary, which gained millions of views online before it was taken down, suggested that wearing a protective mask could actually make people more sick, among other topics.

According to Andrew Contiguglia, president of the not-for-profit First Amendment Lawyers Association, there’s not much people can do about companies moderating or censoring posts on their platforms.

“We have this First Amendment right to free speech, but the social media sites have control over the message we are trying to convey,” Contiguglia told The Epoch Times.

Some people have expressed concern that social media sites aren’t doing enough to counter violent or false speech, he said. At the same time, others argue platforms are unfairly banning and restricting access to potentially valuable speech.

Publishers can be held liable for any content they post, while social media platforms are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Critics say these companies, which claim to be platforms, aren’t only maintaining a public forum but are also moderating its content, effectively making them publishers. They say the companies can’t have it both ways. Contiguglia said he agreed there could come a point where a social media company crosses the line into state action.

Academics have argued that free and and unfettered debate on social media is “profoundly threatened” by factors such as corporate ownership.

“There is no consistency in monitoring or in enforcement,” Contiguglia said. “Influencers’ messages are at the discretion of the monitoring staff at each of these platforms.”

Contiguglia said that lawsuits predicated on the platforms’ decisions to moderate content have been largely unsuccessful under existing laws, saying lawsuits of this nature face at least two significant legal barriers—namely, the State Action Doctrine, and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Courts have held that the First Amendment, which provides protection against state action, isn’t implicated by the actions of these private companies, Contiguglia said.

Some pointed out other concerns. Adam Hempenstall, CEO and founder of Better Proposals, an online proposal software, told The Epoch Times that people are generally discouraged from having their own opinion on social media due to the mass “mob” mentality it generates.

“It’s not the platforms themselves that are discouraging people from voicing their opinion, it’s other users,” he said.

The Epoch Times reached out to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for comment, but didn’t receive any responses by press time.

Meanwhile, Margaret Andriassian, a business marketer whose clients include a cotton mask company, told The Epoch Times via email she had been promoting the masks before some platforms flagged them, marking them as a violation for “selling essentials.”

After getting in touch, all companies except Facebook apologized and resolved the issue and got the products relisted. She said the algorithms are set up to manage and tightly control the selling of masks.

Andriassian also said companies should focus on bigger issues, such as doing more to combat the child pornography industry on their platforms, which has seen a spike during the pandemic.

“It is all over the place with code words throughout social media, and that has not come to a stop whatsoever,” she said. “[Companies] should put all their control and efforts in eliminating that industry, [rather] than trying to control any other news. It’s all politics.”

Follow Bowen on Twitter: @BowenXiao_