The great social silencing

Last week Silicon Valley silenced the president. In unison, the social media giants, with an assist from Amazon and Apple, also eliminated their most popular conservative competitor and announced that their own moderation policies would now extend to other companies. Meanwhile, CNN openly called for Fox News to be banned from cable, while a major talk radio network issued new speech rules to its hosts, extending tech’s moderation policies to the offline world. Beyond all this, Congress and the European Union called for powerful new regulation of online speech.

As a handful of unelected billionaires declare sovereignty over digital speech, where might the coming months take us?

Twitter once touted itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and rebuked Congress’ calls for it to ban terrorists, proclaiming that “the ability of users to share freely their views — including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent” — was its mission. Indeed, most of the early social platforms emphasized unfettered speech above all other considerations. Over the years, this utopian dream has given way to an emphasis on “healthy conversation” and ever-changing enforcement.

Yet for most of their existence, social media platforms have largely avoided censoring elected officials in the U.S. even as they have deleted the accounts of foreign leaders. That all changed last year as Silicon Valley for the first time began labeling President Trump’s tweets as “disputed” and “false.” As progressive segments of the public embraced this new censorship, platforms moved from merely fact-checking posts to deleting them entirely and threatening to ban some lawmakers.

The courts have repeatedly ruled that Trump’s Twitter account is an official government outlet and thus he is prohibited from blocking users with whom he disagrees. How then is a private company able to establish “acceptable speech” rules for a government publication or silence it entirely? 

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