Twitter has recently come under heavy pressure for allowing the Taliban to keep their account on its platform. In contrast, the company decided to suspend Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene for repeatedly tweeting that COVID vaccines are ineffective. In the eyes of many Americans, Twitter should have done the exact opposite. For my part, I can’t help but think that Twitter has the right to behave the way it has.
Since 2019, I have been teaching social media ethics to aspiring computer scientists in Silicon Valley. When my students ask me about the extent of their right to freedom of expression on social media, my answer is quite radical: they are not entitled to freedom of expression on such platforms. It’s because Twitter is not a town square, and we should stop treating it as such.
Traditionally, the language of free speech has been used to protect citizens from censorship when government actors abuse their power and stifle dissent. In recent years, however, social media critics have increasingly used this language to describe a very different relationship: one between powerful private players and the users who generate content on their platforms.
From a legal point of view, the distinction between public and private affairs. The right of citizens to freedom of expression in public spaces does not immediately translate into a right to say what they want in private spaces. For example, citizens do not have the right to publish what they want in the newspaper of their choice. That the Wall Street Journal does not publish my leftist editorials might irritate me, but that does not give me the right to demand that it does. If we think of social media platforms as publishers, then they have the right to control the content that circulates on their platform. Indeed, the comparison between publishers and social media platforms is no exaggeration: just as newspaper editors decide what should appear on the front page, Twitter’s algorithms determine what users see first in their website. flow when they log into their account.
Of course, we could dismiss the publisher analogy and envision social media platforms as virtual spaces that are part of the new online public sphere. This does not make them town squares, neither literally nor metaphorically. Again, these spaces are privately owned, which means they are more akin to public housing i.e. private facilities used by the general public, such as restaurants and cafes. clubs.
Public housing is subject to anti-discrimination law. For example, a restaurateur cannot refuse a service to customers on the grounds that they are disabled or that they practice a particular religion. Yet anti-discrimination legislation targeting public housing does not extend to “point of view discrimination”. For example, it would be quite strange for a white supremacist to claim that she is discriminated against because the Anti-Racist League at her university refuses her membership because of her political views. If Twitter is public housing, it might also have the right to exclude views contrary to the values of its leaders.
In my opinion, abusing the language of free speech prevents us from having a fruitful democratic debate on the right to exclude views from private spaces. Agreeing to engage in such a debate does not mean that we must grant unlimited powers to technology companies. If we – the people – don’t like the fact that social media platforms currently regulate content as they please, we can change anti-discrimination law and collectively decide which perspectives they should be forced to include. Philosophically, however, shouting “free speech” on a crowded social media platform accomplishes nothing; it simply blurs the lines between the public and the private.
Dismissing Twitter’s town square model is not just a matter of philosophical clarity, but also of democratic power. In fact, my suggestion is to design social media businesses as private spaces that can be regulated by the government. Yet people who shout “free speech” have the mistaken impression that Twitter is the government. It is very expensive. If Twitter is our bully, then the best we can do is beg him to behave differently.
Twitter is not a bully, and we are not supplicants. We have elected representatives whose responsibility is to protect the fundamental rights of citizens as opposed to the interests of shareholders. Ultimately, the power to regulate big tech rests with democratically responsible officials, not big techs themselves. If they are to be successful, our grievances must be directed against them.
About the Author
Étienne Brown is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at San José State University, with a doctorate. de la Sorbonne, and is Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project. He teaches the philosophy of law and ethics of technology to aspiring computer scientists in Silicon Valley.