Are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit platforms or publishers?

This is one of the defining questions of our time. Are these companies the digital equivalent of a newspaper, a TV station, a community message board, or a town square? This may seem like an irrelevant distinction, but a crucial one to understanding how our democratic rights and freedoms should be adapted for the modern age.

A virtual town square?

So what if we consider social media to be a town hall or square? This is where the free exchange of ideas takes place without censorship, the need to provide sources, or the requirement that one must be an expert in order to comment at all. In places like this, we have always been free to hold our own viewpoints and this right was respected. Once upon a time, we were allowed to disagree without trying to ban each other from entering the town square.

If we consider social media firms as the digital equivalent of a town square, then theoretically we should have the right to use their platforms freely. (I can already hear your complaints about the town square analogy being inadequate. We’ll get to the problem of misinformation in due course.)

Controlling people’s thoughts

Of course, if these companies are the new publishers, then they should be held to certain standards of accuracy and quality. After all, we regulate TV, radio, and newspaper content, so why not social media posts? But this is where things become problematic. Who amongst us has the ability (or time) to fact-check our posts and opinions, the way that it’s done in print or TV journalism? Or regulate our video content as a TV producer would? Which social media platform has the resources to fact-check the way an editor does for a daily paper? Can we even expect platforms that allow us, in the words of Alex Turner, to share ‘every whimsical thought that enters my mind’, to have any control over what is posted?

If we take YouTube alone, the sheer volume of video content uploaded is truly mind-boggling. By 2019 there were 500 hours of video being uploaded every minute. This equates to approximately 30,000 hours of newly uploaded content per hour. Can we really expect YouTube to regulate its content given these figures? Clearly, this is no standard publisher. Nor is this really a tenable endeavour. Such a move would plainly put an incredible amount of power into the hands of a few Silicon Valley billionaires — something the left in Britain has been rallying against for years: establishment control of our press.

A third way?

Our only option may be to put these giant firms in a brand new category. This category must uphold the values of freedom of expression, whilst seeking to prevent widespread disinformation and the organisation of illegal activity, together with the manipulation and theft of sensitive information. Anything less than this, and we’re in dangerous waters. Allowing companies to ban anyone whose speech goes counter to their narrative is not the way forward and amounts to a form of digital segregation.

We need to have a serious public debate about digital rights. After more than 20 years, this still hasn’t happened. We cannot allow hateful rhetoric, but neither can we permit a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires to become the arbiters of what we can and cannot view or say. This is especially so in light of the fact that these companies are absolutely hunky-dory with selling our personal data to advertisers, reading our personal messages, using your images, and handing MI5 or the NSA whatever data they ask for. Forget Trump for a minute — who I am almost certain is in your mind right now. Bret Weinstein’s Articles of Unity campaign was promoting the idea of rejecting the two-party system in America. He was banned from Twitter with no explanation. Weinstein tweeted at the time:

‘Twitter suspended #Unity2020’s account for amplifying #JustSayNoToDonaldAndJoe as President Trump was accepting the Republican Party’s nomination. Pull back the curtain and see how we got here: vague rules and selective enforcement are the duopoly’s best defense. Heads up, @jack’.

This is the issue here. We cannot allow these platforms to become their own police.

Another issue with censorship is the condemnation of so-called fringe theories. This was highlighted when Weinstein and a number of others suggested back in June 2020 that Covid may have escaped from a lab. They were heavily derided, with Dr. Li-Meng Yan banned from Twitter for arguing that the virus had been altered in a Wuhan lab — a theory that in February 2021 was becoming mainstream and being considered by the WHO who at the time was investigating the origin of the virus, according to Sky News.

Whilst balancing the rights of individuals to challenge conventional wisdom and official narratives, we have to find a way to prevent social media companies from being manipulated by bad actors and spreading misinformation. Only by challenging conventional orthodoxy can we learn and evolve. The diversity of thought and ideas, that have long been the driving force of democracy, cannot be undermined by Big Tech.

Josh Hamilton is a political writer and author of, Brexit: The Establishment Civil War

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