Abdul-Hakim Shabazz: Social media, free speech and censorship

Abdul-Hakim ShabazzThere has been a big debate in the country over whether various social media platforms—most notably, Facebook and Twitter—should have the right to remove content. In other words, are they publishers or platforms?

And should Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was established as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, be reformed to remove provisions that protect social media and internet sites from liability when a user posts something they probably shouldn’t?

First, let’s discuss the “censorship” perspective of this. Let’s define exactly what that is. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, censorship—the suppression of words, images or ideas that someone considers “offensive”—happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as by private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

I have never been a big fan of censorship. I believe in the free marketplace of ideas and that competing ideas can keep each other in check. With that said, social media sites are not the government, but private enterprises, and they can do whatever they want with the content that’s posted. If they want to have a liberal or conservative bias, that’s fine. I’m a big boy; I can figure it out. Why other people can’t seem to figure this out is beyond me. And if you don’t like a platform’s policies, you can take your posts somewhere else.

This takes us now to our second point: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. A number of lawmakers, mostly conservatives and their supporters, want this section of the law changed to remove legal protections for social media sites.

It’s important to know that Section 230 applies to more than Facebook and Twitter. It also applies to internet service providers, bloggers and any “interactive computer service provider.” Granted, there are certain criminal and intellectual property exemptions, but for the most part, an ISP can’t be held liable for what someone posts.

Critics say this provision should be changed because social media sites are acting more like publishers, since they remove “objectionable” content, as opposed to platforms, which allow basically anything to be published. And if social media sites are going to behave like publishers, critics say, they should lose the legal protections Section 230 provides.

No offense, but that is one of the stupidest things lawmakers could do from a public-policy perspective. First, if lawmakers remove the protections and make social media sites liable for anything anyone posts, they might as well shut down the ability for people to comment—and then all we’d have left would be images of cats playing the piano.

Second, and more important, it wouldn’t solve the problem of censorship. In fact, it would only make censorship worse; instead of some ideas not making it through the filter, all ideas would be subject to being weeded out. And it’s not just Facebook and Twitter; the same rules would apply to conservative social media platforms like Parler and MeWe.

In a nutshell, social media platforms are private property and, therefore, can do pretty much whatever they want with the content. For conservatives and liberals who have a problem with this, I strongly recommend that, instead of trying to compel the platforms to promote a certain type of speech, you just start your own platform. Then you can put on some headphones and enjoy the reverb of the echo chamber you’re in all day.•

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Shabazz is an attorney, radio talk show host and political commentator, college professor and stand-up comedian. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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One thought on “Abdul-Hakim Shabazz: Social media, free speech and censorship

  1. Thanks for the editorial. I had to laugh when conservative started pushing to repeal section 230. There would be howls of protest when they saw the results and mainly from the post-truth right wing. However, I do disagree that removing section 230 would hurt the public discourse of ideas. It might hurt the flow of vitriol and untruths, but I am pretty sure legitimate ideas could still be discussed.

    The real benefit that would come from removing these protections is that social media sites, just like polluting industries, are creating externalities that don’t have to pay for right now. Consider that state county voting boards all across the county had to hire extra personnel just to handle the flood of phone calls by panicked voters who were calling over voter misinformation spread on these media platforms. Those cost should had been passed back to media sites, in the form of lawsuits. At that point social media sites would start to realize there is a cost to allowing this kind of activity to continue.

    In today’s environment (with section 230), it is impossible to control this kind of lies, libel, and slander, because who has the resources to sue the thousand people that posted or shared false youtube videos.

    The platforms that allow this kind of activity have to know there are external costs, and should be held accountable for it.

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