Social Media Sites Take Risks When Blocking Speech They Don't Like

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2016-11-16 Print this article Print
Blocking Hate Speech

It’s easy to suggest that people simply ignore or block the idiots such as Yiannopoulos, and Twitter eventually did just that. But what happens when the speech becomes unpleasant because it contains facts that another person does not want to hear? Does Twitter, then, base its blocking or account cancellations on what others don’t like? Or whether the information is the truth?

These are hard questions. And it would be easy to take the approach that all speech is OK because speech is protected, especially if it’s political speech. But is it?

Yesterday I was called by an old dear friend who was in tears because her friends were in a state of abject panic about what might happen when Donald Trump becomes president. These people had been reading anti-Trump fake news and believed it. Is it right to allow obvious lies to be presented just because it’s political?

A week ago a close relative called me about the election—again in tears—because of the election results. “How could this happen, Wayne?” she asked. She feared deeply for her future. Another old friend called a few days ago and told me she was going to buy a handgun to protect herself when those “bad things” begin to happen. She wasn’t sure what those things might be, but she wanted to be ready.

Clearly, hate and lies permeate some parts of the internet and clearly some people believe them. This illustrates the problem that now exists with nearly half of all adults getting their news from social media. But is this a reason to start banning opinions from the internet? And if it is, who determines what should be banned and what should be allowed?

Or, is there a way for social media to flag legitimate media after it’s been vetted, so users will know the material they’re reading comes from a source they can believe?

Unfortunately, legitimate media in the United States and elsewhere have a long history of creating their own fake news, starting in the days of yellow journalism and times when newspapers helped start wars so they’d have something to cover. The cry, “Remember the Maine,” echoes through a century of journalism as a reminder of just how bad fake news and propaganda can be.

Unfortunately, most likely it’s impossible to ban fake news, hate speech and personal attacks—all of which have been around for millennia—without also sometimes blocking legitimate news, valid opinions and sometimes even the truth.

Instead, the best we can do is encourage people to consume their news from multiple sources. Then, a variety of viewpoints combined with the news from people you know and trust can help people weed out what’s real and what’s questionable. But banning fake news and trying to purge speech that some may find hurtful is not the answer.

The answer instead is to encourage people to calmly think rationally, to recognize junk when they see it and relegate it to the digital wastebin.


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