The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We can’t pretend the new social media normal doesn’t come with costs of its own

With Donald Trump's Facebook page in the background, a smartphone displays the former president's statement regarding his ban from the social media platform. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)
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Facebook probably misses the days when its biggest problem was nipples.

You wouldn’t be wrong, after all, to consider the decade-old controversy over breastfeeding mothers as the beginning of a censorship saga that now consumes the country — and its latest episode stars none other than former president Donald Trump.

Facebook’s restrictive policy on female nudity — now modified to be more generous toward moms — was always a bit of an aberration. These companies have generally held the position that expression was itself the highest virtue, and only recently have they plodded toward today’s dogma: Safety matters more. Many of the rest of us have taken the same trip, by necessity. So, what are the chances we’ll turn back around?

Trump has been exiled from multiple platforms, after plenty of unpunished rule-breaking and, more relevantly, after inciting insurrectionists to violence. The gag is permanent on Twitter and perhaps only temporary on Facebook, which made the suspension official last week pending expert evaluation in two years. And in neither case was it terribly surprising.

We scarcely remember when Twitter’s general manager called his cohorts “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” We may even fail to recall when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the stage at Georgetown University and refused to police political speech as part of a fight for “as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible” These principles broke down when they would have required allowing a lame-duck leader to let loose with vitriolic lies about the integrity of an election, and conspiracy theorists hawking fake coronavirus cures to run amok with him. The solution seemed obvious: Erase (or demote) the stuff that’s causing problems; and if the problems continue, just erase more of it.

The old cliches born around the time of the Arab Spring about platforms giving voice to the voiceless didn’t exactly get forgotten. They earned an asterisk, though: Yes, people need to speak truth to power, but that doesn’t mean mysterious algorithms should amplify the already powerful while they drown everyone else out. Yes, we should look warily at government restrictions on expression, but these are private actors with no monopoly on force. Kicked off Twitter and Facebook? So start a blog.

These are good arguments. Certainly, a pro-speech absolutism that tolerated risky behavior always missed a lot — not only about how the world works but also about how social media sites work within it. Many were too caught up in the benefits of unregulated sharing to pay attention to the costs until, not so suddenly, an armed mob was defecating inside the U.S. Capitol.

Now, the go-to stance for card-carrying progressives is the precisely the opposite: We prefer scrubbing out toxic content, especially when it could cause real world harm. But we must take care not to make the same mistake as we did last time — pretending the new normal doesn’t come with costs of its own.

Look around the world. Authorities in India raided Twitter’s New Delhi offices last month because the site slapped a “manipulated media” on a tweet by a member of the ruling party; this came after a torrent of official orders to platforms to purge themselves of content embarrassing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Of course, state censorship is a different problem than businesses enforcing their own terms of service, but it’s not an entirely separate one. Harvard Law lecturer Evelyn Douek points out a news release from India’s secretary of electronics and information technology detailing discussions with Twitter. The minister reportedly “reminded” Twitter about its takedowns surrounding Jan. 6 here to reprimand the firm for failing to act against a purported “disturbance to public order” there. Nigeria made much the same comparison when it blocked Twitter entirely this past week.

You can’t defend yourself against an authoritarian regime by claiming you’re devoted to expression above all else when your record shows you’re willing to compromise.

There are also the governments that activists are asking to involve themselves in writing the rules of the Web — because they still don’t think platforms are doing enough to moderate unsafe speech. Britain’s “Online Safety” bill wants sites to take down content that’s “harmful” and leave up content that’s “democratically important.” Good luck with that!

Most platforms already have no trouble being wrong without bumbling legislators’ help. Often this happens precisely because they’re trying to be responsible. They take voice away from the voiceless — such as when Facebook and Twitter blocked millions of mostly pro-Palestinian posts during last month’s Middle East crisis in an effort to cut down on spam. Or they cut off essential conversations in an effort to protect just those conversations from crackpot interference — such as when Facebook barred posts that said covid-19 could be man-made, a policy it ultimately reversed.

Or they stop nursing mothers from sharing meaningful photos in an effort to prevent nonconsensual porn.

More speech isn’t always better, and platforms as well as the people who use them are wise to recognize it. But less speech isn’t always better either. If we have to learn that the same hard way we’ve learned this last lesson, the pendulum may well swing back around. And we wouldn’t want to find ourselves, another decade down the line, fighting all over again to free the nipple.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Facebook kicked the Trump can down the road again. Enjoy the respite.

The Post’s View: Facebook’s two-year ban on Trump is reasonable. Now comes the hard part.

Megan McArdle: What if Facebook’s Trump ban is a bad call?

Molly Roberts: Facebook just lost its greatest power