Facebook, Social Media, Free Speech and the Public Square

Watching Mark Zuckerberg testify in Congress, I was confronted by the danger he represents. Free speech is protected in the United States, but its expression is not allowed everywhere. History created the idea of the public square; an area, usually at the center of a town, where anyone can speak their mind. While some cities have preserved the concept of the public square, many have slowly lost any semblance of a place where citizens can debate the issues of the day.

Anyone who has tried to man a table at a grocery store or mall in my town will know that it is not allowed. So where do Americans debate the issues of the day? The answer is the new public square, the social media. In 2017 the Supreme Court justices seemed to agree and decide that the new virtual public square needs Constitutional protection.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said about the rights of people to use social media, “… the point is that … people are being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas. And the First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information.”

The right to be included in the marketplace of ideas and the right to receive information are critical ideas. Why?
First, these rights speak to why the disappearance of the physical public square in local towns and cities, where citizens can interact about issues, is a such a real and urgent problem. Without access and the ability to receive information, citizens are kept from both making a political difference and having the opportunity to hear divergent opinions. When journalism and the mainstream media, have become partisan and unwilling to allow divergent opinion, the lack of the function of the public square becomes a danger to society. Many states and locales have created rules denying political discussion, petition signing or protests in places of business, malls, parks and streets. The result is that citizen political initiatives have become extremely difficult to organize and execute.

Second, when social media became the virtual public square, it arrived in time to support a national grassroots political movement, the Tea Party. The tea party movement’s politics were largely seen by the social media industry as hate speech. This prompted the blocking of thousands of tea party member posts by Facebook or having their memberships summarily ended.

Justice Ginsberg’s right of access to the market place of ideas and right to the receipt of those ideas completely contradicts both Mark Zuckerberg’s and Facebook’s idea that they, a private company, will decide exclusively who can enter their marketplace of ideas and what information may be received by their members. Their answer to protecting free speech on Facebook, is to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program that automatically filters out hate comments and denies access to Facebook by those who use hate speech or belong to, what in their exclusive opinion, are hate groups. The question for the social media public square becomes what speech is protected and what is not within that protection.

Enter Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, a.k.a. Diamond and Silk. They are two black sisters who are conservative comedians and support the current President, Donald Trump. During September 2017, their Facebook friends and those who followed their page (created in 2014) noticed that none of their posts were being distributed. After repeatedly trying to obtain help from Facebook without result, Facebook answered, “The [Facebook] Policy team has come to the conclusion that your content and your brand has been determined unsafe to the community. This decision is final and is not appeal-able in any way.”

The message has two chilling revelations. The first is that there is no explanation of what about their “brand” or identity had been constituted unsafe to the community; and second, that the decision is final and unable to be appealed in any way.
A brand is a, “unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors. ” For Diamond and Silk their brand is black conservative comedy and blogs about "media bias, political babble, and repetitive political tactics that they feel the average American is tired of being subjected to" and their unequivocal support of President Trump.

If your identity is considered a reason for being denied access to the market of ideas, then under identity politics your identity is considered oppressive or discriminatory and by definition your speech is hate speech. Identity politics has a much greater problem for free speech hiding inside it. It is the requirement that the identity group be accepted under the exact terms that they perceived as being oppressive.

What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one's differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (2001: 85).

An example is an LGBT activist demand that Christians who believe Biblical verses prohibit LGBT practices as an abomination to God, not only accept LGBT persons but accept LGBT persons as having no Biblical instruction against LGBT practices. A result is a California law that makes it illegal for a priest to offer to pray for the healing of an LGBT person from their LGBT identity.

How Facebook could decide that Diamond and Silk are an oppressive brand is easier to understand when the Wall Street Journal reveals that Facebook had … considered banning Donald Trump from its network for violations of its content standards and that founder Mark Zuckerberg had intervened to prevent the ban, arguing that banning a presidential candidate in the midst of an election would be too disruptive.”

Simply being a national political candidate, disapproved of by Facebook, is sufficient reason within Facebook to block the candidate from the new public square and required the intervention of the founder to stop. Being supportive of Trump and a member of an oppressed identity group, Black Americans, means that the speech of the two sisters, Diamond and Silk, must be blocked.

All forms of acceptance, social compromise or tolerance are insufficient. Only what the “oppressed” desire is acceptable. Not only is every form of dissent or pushback disallowed, but branded hate speech and the group or identity speaking it, a hate group. It becomes insufficient in the new public square to require that political correctness guide the manner of expression and the selection of words used. Some believe that Twitter is the new public square by itself, but that is not true. Twitter is like shouting slogans, while Facebook involves much longer discussions. The politics of identity within the Facebook version of the public square have evolved political correctness into enforced newspeak.

In the world of [George Orwell’s] Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Newspeak is a controlled language, of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, a linguistic design meant to limit the freedom of thought—personal identity, self-expression, free will—that ideologically threatens the régime of Big Brother and the Party, who thus criminalized such concepts as thought crime, contradictions of the Party’s orthodoxy.

The danger to all of us is real and not exaggerated. If we don’t manage the extension of first amendment rights to include the new public square, then we have all lost real access to public discussion and frre speech is dead.

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