Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that Twitter is free to suspend organizations and people. You can find a counterpoint here, where the Internet Accountability Project’s Caleb Larson argues that legislators must take action against acts of censorship by Twitter and other Big Tech companies.
Across the country, Americans are understandably concerned about free speech and issues involving social media platforms moderating and removing content, and sometimes cutting some people off from using their services. Many people, especially some conservatives, fear platforms are taking some of these steps due to political preferences.
This issue recently reappeared when, as the New York Post reported, “Twitter locked the account of a right-leaning parody site, The Babylon Bee, after it awarded Rachel Levine, the transgender Biden administration official, the title of ‘man of the year.’ The Babylon Bee story was a reaction to USA Today’s naming of Levine, who is US assistant secretary for health for the US Department of Health and Human Services, as one of its ‘women of the year’ last week.”
Social media companies are free to set their terms of service and moderate content as they choose. It doesn’t mean their policies are smart. In this case, Twitter’s suspension of the Babylon Bee makes Twitter appear to be oblivious to satire and comedy. We can think a social media platform’s decision is wrong and misguided — the Bee suspension is — but private companies are free to get things wrong as they try to do what they think is best for their platforms.
The best way for customers to respond to businesses that have policies we don’t like is to take our business elsewhere. One of the worst responses is to call for government regulations to force those business owners to toe our preferred lines.
The last thing anyone who cares about free speech should want are politicians and government bureaucrats deciding what can and cannot be on social media platforms. Bureaucrats and regulators would be worse at finding an appropriate balance of content moderation than private firms, and their mistakes would likely apply to all platforms. The right doesn’t want people chosen by President Joe Biden regulating all social media platforms and the left doesn’t want people chosen by former President Donald Trump choosing what social media content is and isn’t acceptable. And none of us want content rules that change whenever the political party in power changes.
Like any private business, social media platforms are based on mutually beneficial exchanges where both business and customers benefit. If either the business or a customer does not feel they’ll benefit from the exchange, they have the right to walk away. Just as we can all decide we don’t want to use a company’s services, that company can also decide it doesn’t want to provide us services. A Christian baker has the right to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. And any customers who don’t like the baker’s decisions are free to take their business elsewhere.
Indeed our own organization, Reason Foundation, has had some of its news and analysis content wrongly flagged by social media platforms. While we certainly disagreed with the platforms, we entirely support their rights to choose what goes on and is shared on their platforms. And, yes, companies like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have developed great influence in our society, but social media companies aren’t the government. They aren’t required by the Constitution to let us speak on their platforms.
These companies face a complex task trying to figure out what customers want, how to provide it, and how to make a profit. They certainly get things wrong, as in the case of Twitter’s Babylon Bee suspension. But the gloomy alternative is the government regulating speech, which would also produce a chilling effect whereby social media companies would likely forgo any kind of controversial content to avoid regulatory sanction. This would be a tragedy given the diversity of conversations occurring on the internet.
Beyond pleasing customers and making a profit, it is also a private business’s First Amendment right to promote whatever speech it wants to. In 1974, the Supreme Court struck down a “right of reply” law that forced newspapers to publish the response of political candidates whose records they wrote about. The law would have forced private newspapers to print speech against their will.
Similarly, in 1995, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring a private parade to include a gay rights group because it violated “the fundamental First Amendment rule that a speaker has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message.”
Whether it is a parade, a tweet, or a Facebook post, the constitutional principle is that users have no right to force platform providers to host their speech. Rather than calling for government regulation forcing social media companies to do what politicians or certain groups want, media consumers should develop skills at evaluating the merits of information we see online and making good decisions about what social media platforms and news sources we can trust. It is up to us to determine where we go to read, view, and learn things we don’t already know and we’re free to choose which news sites and social media platforms we want to be customers of.