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Free speech and the social media giants

When Twitter and other social media platforms indefinitely suspended Donald Trump’s accounts after the attack on the U.S. Capitol and before the presidential inaugural, it set off a howl from the political right that these giant influencers were in the bag for the liberal agenda and free-speech rights were being trampled.

To clarify one major point, the First Amendment prohibition against “abridging the freedom of speech” does not obligate a private company to publish anything or prevent it from banning anyone. The First Amendment actually protects an information company’s right to publish what it wants.

Which doesn’t mean these decisions by Twitter and Facebook are not a big deal; they are. And they do raise serious questions about who controls public discourse in this digital age.

The explanation the social media giants provided was largely the same reason the House of Representatives had for impeaching the former president; that his false claims that he had won the election, and his calls for action by his supporters, had incited the attack on the Capitol and threatened to invite violence at the inaugural.

Yet Twitter and Facebook had tolerated for years the former president’s numerous violations of their policies, and his incendiary language, without shutting down his account.

Granted, Trump presented media of all types with questions never raised by a prior president. He felt no obligation to tell the truth. The Washington Post, which took on the task of monitoring all false or misleading statements by or on behalf of President Trump, ended up with a count of 30,753, many via Twitter.

Politicians have always shaded the facts and dealt in half-truths, but Trump just made things up and endlessly repeated them, feeling no compunction to correct his conduct when the lies were pointed out. The Post found Trump said nearly 500 times that he had presided over the strongest economy in the nation’s (or sometimes world’s) history and about 300 times that he had signed the biggest tax cuts ever. Neither claim is true.

These false claims would be repeated by millions of Trump supporters on social media, be bolstered by some cable networks and, we might add, show up in letters submitted to the editor. How could you blame them, we suppose, given the information was coming from the president. For us, assuring Trump’s supporters had their say, while trying to uphold accuracy, became quite the challenge. And it remains so, with charges that we’re joining the social media companies in shutting down free speech when we won’t repeat falsehoods in letters.

Yet we certainly recognize the dangers in restricting commentary. Ignorance of what is driving one side of a debate is not always bliss. If Trump had allowed his handlers to have greater control over his Twitter feed, managing and sanitizing his thoughts and impulses for public consumption, the people would have never realized the full measure of the man.

One thing this situation has shown is the troubling degree to which the power over public discourse on social media has become so concentrated. Facebook has 2.7 billion users, Twitter 330 million, about half of which are quite active. Instagram, also owned by Facebook, has 854 million.

The fact that the social-media site Parler, more tolerant of hard-right views and conspiracies and which Trump eyed as an alternative to communicate, was forced offline after several vendors it needed to operate, including another giant, Amazon, ceased their technical support, was particularly troubling.

Calling for violence or planning criminal activity is outside the protection of the First Amendment and subject to law enforcement. But shutting down a site because it chooses different standards for allowable discourse sure sounds like censorship.

This concentration of power gives more justification to the calls to use antitrust laws to breakup these social media monopolies and create greater competition. Providing more opportunities for free speech is a better option than trying to tell private companies what they must allow or letting just a couple of social media voices dominate such an important public space.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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