Over a year ago, Twitter launched its ‘Managing the Conversation’ initiative. This was adopted, according to Twitter, to start monitoring and moderating interactions on Twitter based on user intent or perceived intent. In other words, if a Twitter user was engaging another Twitter user in a way that didn’t break the current Twitter rules, but that Twitter felt was harassing or hostile, then Twitter would have the ability to censor that user.
This idea immediately grabbed me as being a bad one, because Twitter was creating a way to shift from one-size-fits-all rules that apply to the entire community, to Twitter having the power to make judgement calls and independently police content. It created a scenario where two users could engage in the exact same behavior, but only one of them be policed by Twitter, with Twitter saying that the first user had a a negative ‘intent’ behind his content that the second user did not.
I follow a small group of reporters on Twitter who have a track record for giving accurate and credible information. It’s how I keep up with national and political news. Earlier this year, I began to notice that they were mentioning with frequency that ‘conservative’ Twitter users were having their accounts banned or blocked for ‘no reason’. At first I didn’t really pay much attention to this, the person being banned rarely thinks they deserved it. But a few months ago, Twitter began actively censoring President Trump’s tweets. That got my attention.
A few days ago, Pres Trump, upon beating covid, tweeted that he was now immune from catching covid. This is a claim that many doctors around the world agree with. There is no consensus, but many doctors believe that covid patients who survive do have immunity from catching it again, either for a limited amount of time, or permanently.
When Pres Trump tweeted that he was immune from catching covid, Twitter labeled his tweet as being a violation of Twitter’s rules and potentially ‘harmful’ information:
I don’t get it. Does twitter have a doctor on staff who censors all of Trump’s tweets? Who decides these tweets are not medically accurate? https://t.co/I4tiP50bkH
— Alan (@Alan46285607) October 11, 2020
And as we can see, other Twitter accounts making essentially the same claim, aren’t being censored:
Didn't Twitter flag Trump for saying this? https://t.co/PlNLjOo13I
— Byron York (@ByronYork) October 12, 2020
Doubling-down, Twitter recently announced that it will be very aggressively moderating content created about the US Election in 3 weeks:
? Thread ??
As we head into #Election2020, this morning we announced some important updates to our policy and to the product experience which you can read about in detail here: https://t.co/jG80d9DhLz
— Kayvon Beykpour (@kayvz) October 9, 2020
Twitter is saying that any content created on election day that claims that someone has won a race (either congressional or presidential) that hasn’t been called by a ‘credible’ source, can be removed by Twitter. Twitter says it will also add ‘restrictions’ to any content that Twitter deems to be ‘misleading’ concerning the election. For instance, if on election night I tweet that ‘Wow, I really don’t think (candidate) can win’, Twitter could censor that tweet or identify it publicly as ‘misinformation’.
You can see how this creates an environment where Twitter’s team can let their own political biases cloud their judgment and literally turn the site into a platform for election interference. By creating these broad ‘guidelines’, Twitter is signaling that it can and likely will censor political content that it doesn’t agree with. As we see above, Twitter has already shown to inconsistently apply it’s own stated guidelines toward political content.
Now, those of you that don’t like Trump or don’t like conservative viewpoints in general, I can hear you saying ‘So what? This sounds great to me!” Here’s why you should care: There’s a law called CDA 230.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is probably the most significant law protecting speech on the internet. In general, it says that content creators, whether they are individuals, or sites that host content from users (such as Twitter and Facebook), will be treated as if they are PLATFORMS, not publishers, under the law. But at the same time, they will have the ability to censor and moderate content left on their platforms by third-parties, as a publisher could. If content creators were treated as if they were publishers under the law, then they would also be liable for content created by their users. For instance, under CDA 230, as a blogger, I am not legally responsible for the content that a third party might create and leave here via a comment. Without the protections of CDA 230, I could be. That’s the advantage of being classified as a platform versus a publisher. CDA 230 was designed to shield us from legal liability for the content created by our commenters or users.
In essence, what Twitter is doing is skirting the good intentions of CDA 230. They are using the protections of CDA 230 to, it at least appears, censor content that supports certain political viewpoints. As we can all hopefully agree, this is not what free speech and open discussion is about. As you might guess, both President Trump and even the DOJ have signaled that they want to re-examine the protections that sites like Twitter have under CDA 230, and possibly modify it in ways that could hurt individual content creators like you and I, as well.
And before you take that as a reason to vote for Joe Biden, Senator Biden wants to go even further than Pres Trump, Biden wants to eliminate CDA 230 completely. Politicians on both sides of the isle have said they want to amend, change, or remove CDA 230 completely. As an individual content creator, that scares me.
So if you are a blogger like me, understand that your ability to create content and publish it as you have been could be on the ballot as well this November. Please educate yourself about what’s happening in regards to content moderation on social sites like Twitter and Facebook, educate yourself on CDA 230 and what it is, and finally educate yourself on what state and national politicians are proposing for the future of CDA 230. One of the most powerful aspects of the internet is that through tools like blogging, we all have a way to share our voice with the world. It’s vital that we maintain that precious freedom.
PS: This post gives a very mild recap of some laws regarding internet speech. This post is not offered as legal advice, and should not be taken as such. Please do your own research on these topics and consult a qualified legal professional if you have questions about how these laws might apply to you.