By Nomiki Konst, contributor
In 2010, when the countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya shut down the Internet during their revolutions, democracies around the globe publicly condemned their governments. Today, as North Korea, China and Iran continue to block access to Twitter and Facebook, our government has labeled their actions as human rights violations. The modern world has come to rely on the Internet and the free press as a democratic tool, giving citizens a position in public discourse. The value of these social media tools is so vast that the U.N. has condemned states that deny the Internet — regardless of reason — through its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
So it should be a shock to Americans that recently in our own country, a grassroots hashtag being used to debate the stances of one of our presidential candidates was shut down. But it was not shut down by the U.S. government, but rather by Twitter itself. The same Twitter that lobbied for net neutrality and to keep Twitter alive around the world. And now that same Twitter has promoted #SaySomethingGoodAboutTwitter, to counter the criticism it faced for censoring its utility last week.
Twitter has become the front line of the debate over free speech. Should the company ban hateful speech? Bigotry? Sexism? Should it shut down or just monitor the accounts of terrorists and drug lords? Against much public pressure, Twitter has chosen a liberal stance and trusted its community to draw the line on acceptable behaviors.
So why this sudden reversal? Why would Twitter shut down a grassroots hashtag that was leading a discussion regarding a Democratic primary? The answer lies in that old saying, “follow the money.”
Three days after Omid Kordestani, the executive chairman of Twitter, hosted a maxed-out fundraiser for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a Black Lives Matter activist’s notable protest at another fundraiser inspired #WhichHillary — to open debate about Clinton’s often conflicting record on issues. #WhichHillary exploded within hours of the protest and rose to the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter. Clinton, who canceled several financial industry fundraisers recently (most likely to prevent a Wall Street optics dilemma) has lately been relying on donations from the liberal-leaning tech community.
All this occurred within days of the South Carolina primary. As South Carolina voters were making up their minds, this massive campaign challenging Clinton’s history with the African-American community became the No. 1 most discussed topic on Twitter. Yet it came to a sudden halt and was pushed off the trending topics list as its momentum kept building. (And the hashtag’s creator’s account was even suspended.)
As a country that prides itself in being the leader of democratic values, assisting democracies through State Department-funded programs in areas like the free press, election monitoring and party assistance, perhaps it’s time for us to take a moment to assess the state of our own democracy?
Do we have the same democratic process that we are championing around the world? If the 2000 election debacle wasn’t a shock, and if the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision didn’t send your head spinning, and the gerrymandering process hasn’t made you question our system, then maybe you trusted the free and open Internet to be the corner of our democracy where citizens could still have a voice. Now, even that safe space is being invaded.
Politicians and power brokers will always seek new ways to win — from giving local party leaders’ control over voter files and caucus monitoring, to the outdated idea of super-delegates preventing non-establishment candidates from winning the nomination, to candidates being chosen by their fundraising skills rather than their ideas and support. Winning elections is important. But at what cost?
And at what point do we go from being the global leader of democratic elections to the example of a system that cannot withstand corruption?
These are the debates our founders encouraged us to discuss, notably through each generational revolution. The press has always been controlled by interests, and power brokers have always found shortcuts to winning — but throughout history, as the public has recognized the consequences of these actions, they’ve pressured government for reform. Is it time for government oversight of Twitter and Facebook, public entities controlled by executives and investors? Should they be considered public utilities? Should the Federal Election Commission crack down on parties that design election rules and landscapes in favor of establishment picks?
As this election continues, we citizens should be asking these questions and letting our leaders know that we recognize that the process needs drastic and immediate reform. Just as #WhichHillary was shut down, a new hashtag immediately popped up: #WhichHillaryCensored (which was later shut down, as well), while Twitter continues its damage control by promoting #SaySomethingGoodAboutTwitter. But in America, citizens always find a way to be heard. And now more than ever, Americans have new vehicles to challenge the status quo. So, let’s start a new hashtag: #CorruptTwitter.
Konst is a political analyst and communications strategist regularly appearing on national media outlets discussing politics.
How Silicon Valley Censors You Online
On hate speech, social media companies are enthusiastically liking, retweeting, and faving national governments. In December, the German government announced that they had secured the co-operation of Facebook, Google and Twitter in removing “hate speech” from their platforms. A wave of censorship followed.
Why have web firms been persuaded to give up their original free-speech ideals? Governments haven’t passed any laws requiring Silicon Valley to march to their drum. So why are Facebook, Twitter and Google doing so anyway?
The mad progressivism of their Bay Area CEOs probably has something to do with it. But there’s another reason: Governments have become increasingly adept at intimidating companies without using the law.
In 2011, liberal scholar and Net Neutrality activist Tim Wu published an essay entitled “Agency Threats,” discussing how best to regulate companies. In his essay, Wu argued that passing legislation was not, in fact, the most efficient way to pressure web firms (he would soon be proven right during the SOPA and PIPA protests, in which web firms mobilised their vast userbase to cripple a major congressional attempt at web copyright reform.)
Instead, Wu advocated “Rule by Threat” to force companies to capitulate to the government. Wu’s study suggested that regulatory agencies didn’t just have to use adjudication or official rule making processes to get what they wanted, but could force companies to bend to their will by simply threatening them. Most importantly, he suggested that these “threats” worked best for companies rolling out “newly invented technologies or business models” (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and Google).
Today, governments’ attention has turned from copyright to speech. With a rising tide of anti-immigration, anti-establishment populism on both sides of the Atlantic, national governments are waking up to the consequence of letting their citizens speak freely on the web for all these years. While there is no sign that they’re planning to pass new laws to force social media companies to obey them, there’s plenty of evidence that Wu’s “Rule by Threat” doctrine is already in play.
It isn’t the first time the government has used threats to get what it wants. Outside the realm of tech, the Office For Civil Rights’ infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011, sent out to every college administration in the country, warned that colleges that did not comply with their demand to water down due process in sexual assault cases on campus could face cuts to their federal funding.
The result was four years of panic as colleges scrambled to fight against the government’s “rape culture” boogeyman – a panic that has resulted in the Rolling Stone scandal, as well as dozens of lawsuits from students who feel their due process rights have been violated. Tech companies are now fighting another of the government’s boogeymen: hate speech. Similarly disastrous results are sure to follow.
On November 17th, 2014, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was asked by representative
about how the government could regulate social media to prevent outbreaks of violence by making it more difficult for potentially violent individuals to co-ordinat. In response, Wheeler emphasised that he did not have, and did not intend to seek jurisdiction over companies like Facebook. He rejected suggestions from representatives that the government step in and shut down communications channels if they were being used in an “offensive, inappropriate” way.
However, Wheeler added that he would use his “bully pulpit” to pressure Zuckerberg, and promised to call him that very day. It’s a tactic seemingly emulated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was caught on tape last September pressuring Zuckerberg over “hate speech against immigrants” on Facebook.
Have their efforts paid off? Well, look at the results. Wheeler was asked to pressure Zuckerberg to help curtail violence, and only this January, Facebook and its sister site Instagram announced they would curtail gun sales on their networks. In September, the German Chancellor asked Zuckerberg to deal with “hate speech against migrants,” and a few months later, Facebook announces it would work with German authorities to deal with hate speech against migrants. “Rule by Threat” is working.
We should continue to hold Silicon Valley CEOs’ feet to the fire over their blatant progressive biases. But we also shouldn’t fall to the illusion that new CEOs alone would solve the problem. Conservative or politically neutral CEOs would also feel the pressure of national governments to conform.