- Becca Lewis is a PhD candidate in communication at Stanford University who researches online social movements and extremist groups.
- She says decrying Trump’s bans on social media as censorship distracts from the real issue: that companies like Facebook and Twitter are really simply media companies who use editorial intervention and oversight.
- We’ve begun to see platforms make decisions that implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledge this, she writes.
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In the wake of Trump’s permanent ban from Twitter and indefinite ban from Facebook, right-wing public figures cried censorship. Media personalities and politicians alike claimed the situation was Orwellian, akin to the events of “1984”; on right-wing cable news networks, show hosts wryly welcomed their viewers to “Communist China.”
As an academic who researches social media platforms and the extremist groups that thrive on them, I agree that the Trump bans raise important questions about the role of Facebook and Twitter in shaping political discourse and information online.
But framing this as an issue of censorship distracts from the real issue.
What we actually observed last week was the platforms making a decision.
Donald Trump’s voice has not been silenced: Until the inauguration, he still has an entire press corps devoted to covering his positions via his press secretary. Even after he leaves office, he will have access to a thriving right-wing media ecosystem that can amplify his ideas and opinions.
What Facebook and Twitter have done is simply decide that he will not have a direct line through their platform to broadcast his ideas to millions of people at a time.
We’re used to this kind of editorial decision when it comes from television or print news.
These outlets make choices every day about what to cover, who to interview, who to publish in their op-ed sections, and who to invite as talking heads. They even decide when to air video messages from the president and how to contextualize them.
If this decision-making seems strange to us in the context of social media, it’s partly because platforms have spent the last 10-plus years telling us that they aren’t media companies – that, in fact, they’re revolutionizing public discourse, removing media gatekeepers, and democratizing the spread of information.
In 2012, Twitter executive Tony Wang famously called the platform the “free speech wing of the free speech party.” Mark Zuckerberg has consistently claimed that Facebook is not an “arbiter of truth.” As internet scholar Tarleton Gillespie has pointed out, even using the term “platform” was a strategic decision – the word is flexible enough that it evokes both the vaguely progressive ideal of giving everyone a voice while also suggesting it is merely a “neutral” technological architecture.
In reality, social media companies have always been media companies – or at least as long as they have been monetizing content through advertising.
As internet policy scholars Robyn Caplan and Phil Napoli write, “Being in the business of providing content to audiences, while selling those audiences to advertisers is a defining characteristic of the media sector.”
Caplan and Napoli likewise point out that, while these companies claim they are neutral arbiters who make no editorial interventions, the algorithms they build make these interventions all the time. They surface, recommend, and suppress content, and in the process, they shape what information we see and engage with.
As social media companies have gotten more involved as intermediaries in news and political coverage, the difference between how they present themselves and how they actually function has been reaching a breaking point.
This’s why, in the past few years, we have begun to see platforms make decisions that implicitly, if not explicitly, acknowledge their roles as media companies.
If they acknowledge it too openly, that would put them at risk of increased regulation and oversight, and it could potentially put them on the hook for more costly and robust moderation decisions. It would also force them to develop a more rigorous and consistent approach to the difficult decisions about which voices deserve to be amplified.
At the same time, the platforms are learning that it’s not good for their brand reputations to incite genocide or become the mouthpiece for powerful leaders with authoritarian tendencies.
Even Pornhub, the adult entertainment giant built on the premise that anyone can upload amateur videos, officially announced at the end of 2020 that they are now removing all videos not uploaded by official content partners.
None of this is to say that there aren’t important consequences around political speech and information, or that the removal of Donal Trump is not something we should take seriously. To the contrary, it shows just what powerful media forces Facebook, Twitter, and others have become in our contemporary political world. Neither am I claiming that these companies are the same kind of media companies as TV news networks or print newspapers.
They come with a host of their own challenges and concerns that don’t apply to older forms of media and that have important consequences. And on the flip side, they also lack certain civic ideals that have become entwined with traditional media companies – for example, there’s no public broadcasting equivalent in the world of social platforms.
But these are precisely the problems we need to work through in the coming years. We now know that a lot of what we were told about platforms early on wasn’t ultimately true: They haven’t revolutionized speech, spread democracy throughout the world, or given everyone a neutral platform from which to speak.
By making claims of censorship, we partially reinforce the expectation that platforms play these roles that they don’t. Instead, we need to acknowledge their role as editorializers so we can hold them accountable for what they actually do.
Becca Lewis is a PhD candidate in communication at Stanford University and a graduate affiliate at the University of North Carolina Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life. She researches online social movements and their uses of digital media technologies.