The giants of social media almost seem as if they’re crumbling these days. You may have heard that YouTube once again began deleting any and all videos that deal with the sale or use of firearms this week. We already knew that Facebook has been suspending conservative accounts right and left, while insiders at Twitter have confessed to shadowbans of people with the wrong sorts of ideas.
How did it come to this when all we originally wanted was a place to post our cat pictures and videos of people walking into lampposts?
First of all, it appears that most of the ban hammer activity wound up hitting conservative voices, but it would have been just as bad if it had happened to liberals. But why are some being censored and others favored on these platforms to begin with? The answer isn’t all that difficult to suss out and it has little to do with bias. It’s because two warring tribes (conservatives and liberals) all wanted these platforms to do it and in the end they decided to pick a side.
Ideally, all of these platforms were supposed to be places where users could simply post their own content. Videos, pictures, opinions, be they ever so unpopular, could appear for public consumption. And here’s the thing to remember: All of that is speech. Just like WordPress, Blogger or any of the other weblog services provided a tool for users to publish their thoughts, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube offered a tool allowing users to quickly publish other types of content for free. What you used the tool to publish was up to you.
But then people became offended by what some other users published. And rather than holding the individual account owner solely responsible for their published content, people began demanding that the platform owners “do something about it.” And they listened to those voices. Demanding that those providers make value judgments about the “acceptability” of the content was never going to end well, and as we’ve been seeing recently, it didn’t. If you set up a water pipe and allow people to freely add to it, someone will always be upset when another person decides to put grape or cherry Koolaid in it. But that’s not the fault of the person who built the pipe.
That’s not to say there are no limits to what should be allowed on these platforms. There are clearly defined things which can’t be publicly posted, such as threats of violence. A provider can also implement their own rules for “family friendly” content such as banning pornographic content. If illegal material shows up on YouTube or Facebook, that’s still not the fault of the people providing the platform, but they should make a good faith effort to quickly remove such content as soon as it’s brought to their attention.
But beyond those few examples, these platforms which freely publish user-generated content should allow anything and everything to be posted and leave it to the account owner to suffer the wrath of those who are offended. There are guidelines available as to how to draw those lines and they can be matched with the free speech protected by the government. If users wish to post racist, sexist or any other “ist” material, it’s still protected speech.
In a way, the fashion in which Facebook and YouTube have failed is the perfect example of why the First Amendment protects the most offensive speech. As soon as you allow someone to begin drawing the line as to which speech is “acceptable” and which isn’t, that line may move and you could be the next one to find yourself on the wrong side of it.
That’s what’s happened with YouTube and their decision to delete videos discussing gun sales or firearms use. There’s nothing illegal about selling firearms to qualified buyers. But now the guardians of speech on YouTube have decided that such things can be banned. What’s next? If you post a video saying there are only two genders (such as Bill Nye the “Science Guy” did), will it be removed? If you claim a 7 week old fetus is a baby, will your video disappear?
Don’t laugh at the idea of the slippery slope. It’s very real and both Facebook and YouTube have already shoved armies of people down it. And the saddest part of this tale is that they’re doing it because we asked them to.