In an alarmingly frightening trend, Americans are in the midst of an unprecedented wave of censorship perpetuated by social media platforms. In just the past few weeks, Big Tech has silenced the former president and made attempts to fully eliminate Parler, an up-and-coming free speech alternative to Twitter. We now live in an age wherein the most sacred of American rights, the freedom of speech, no longer applies to all.
The rapid innovation of technology and the ways in which it affects our daily lives has baffled those of us who remember the pre-digital and dial-up days. Overnight, the emergence of social media platforms has elevated the national conversation and political discourse to a size and scope that was borderline science-fiction nearly a decade ago.
Within a few years, we have witnessed the previously unfathomable ability of individuals to express an opinion that instantly reaches a global audience, a development that would overwhelm and excite the founders of our nation. However, this mass communication network is managed by a handful of powerful tech titans, who are protected from liability and operate as monopolies. As recent events have shown, the power held by these gargantuan companies to tip the scales of information has caused many Americans to become fearful that they are unable to freely express themselves. The situation has become untenable.
According to Statista, the number of social network users worldwide reached 3.6 billion in 2020 and is projected to increase to 4.41 billion by 2025. According to Datareportal, the average time a person spends on social media per day is two hours and 24 minutes. At that rate, if someone were to sign up for social media accounts at the of age 16, they would spend 5.7 years on social media platforms by the time they reach age 70. Furthermore, 70 percent of the U.S. population has social network accounts, with 231.47 million users currently. In other words, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become the primary sources of communication in the twenty-first century.
This phenomenon has been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Harris Poll conducted in the spring of 2020, 46 to 51 percent of U.S. adults are using social media at higher rates than pre-pandemic. In addition, U.S. social network ad spending is projected to rise 21.3 percent from the already staggering $40 billion spent in 2020 to around $49 billion in 2021, according to eMarketer.
All of these statistics provide ample evidence that social networks have become so much more than a host for memes, jokes, and life updates among friends and family. In today’s world, the social network has become a major sector of the United States economy, swaying corporate successes and failures. In addition to influencing streams of revenue through advertising, we have seen more clearly than ever that social media platforms have the ability to impact, and even guide, the social discourse.
By creating “norms,” these social media mammoths deem what is acceptable and palatable while silencing those who do not fall within the narrow confines of the always-mobile Overton Window.
In the past, anything that fell outside of that window may have simply received fewer views or less praise. However, like dial-up internet, those days are long behind us. The approval of narratives and discourses has evolved into outright censorship and proxy editing, thus allowing these Big Tech platforms undue influence over American society — far more than print newspapers, radio stations, or television programs could ever dream of exerting.
Recent attempts to mitigate the control of independent thought and freedom of speech through social media censorship took center stage in May 2020, when President Trump signed his Executive Order on Social Media Censorship.
The executive order sought to address the rampant abuse of the outdated and obsolete Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 largely exempts social media platforms from legal liability for the material their users post. The executive order called into question whether the protections social media platforms reap from Section 230 should be contingent on if they censor or edit posted content which, it could be argued, moves them into editorial capacity as opposed to the mere host they were intended and claim to be.
Following suit, if one is to simply google, “Executive Order on Social Media Censorship” and follow the link to the official White House webpage, you will be met with an “error, page not found” message further showing the depths to which this information curating can truly reach.
Overall, the unparalleled censorship of the president of the United States (and others) by Facebook and Twitter, has left many Americans concerned that they will possibly be next. Big Tech’s arbitrary clampdown on those they deem guilty of spreading “misinformation” or “disinformation” has also raised the eyebrows of federal and state lawmakers as states enter into legislative session this year.
This issue of censorship and proxy editing is significant and should be treated as such. Legislators should consider solutions that would protect all Americans from undue censorship by a cabal of Big Tech ideologues who wield near-total power over the dissemination of information in today’s social media-dominated environment. Social media is the modern-day public square, and in America, everyone has a right to voice their opinion, regardless of whether or not a few tech titans agree with their views. More speech, not less speech, is always better in a free society.
Samantha Fillmore ([email protected]) is a government relations manager at The Heartland Institute.