Debate intensifies over free speech rights of conservatives on social media

Updated: Jan. 11, 2021 at 8:19 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A growing number of conservatives say their free speech rights are being violated by social media companies after tech giants like Facebook and Twitter continue to remove posts and suspend accounts in the wake of Wednesday’s deadly U.S. Capitol riot.

On Facebook, users have been posting that their Twitter accounts have been suspended, claiming the action was taken without justification, though 3 On Your Side cannot independently verify that claim because tweets of suspended accounts are not visible.

“I have about 80,000 Twitter followers. And over the space of a couple of days, I lost several thousand of these. So there really is a problem,” said Douglas Carswell, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy and former member of Parliament.

Carswell believes there’s a definite bias among social media companies where conservative viewpoints are concerned, one that’s only gotten more intense since last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Experts say some of the planning for that deadly incident came through posts on Parler, originally heralded as a haven for those with right-leaning viewpoints to come and share their views without fear of those views being removed.

“There’ve been some social media platforms that have started out by saying, ‘Do you know what? We’re going to allow anything to be said and done.’ And very soon, they actually find that if you do that, you you turn into a bit of a cesspit,” Carswell said. “And it’s not a nice place for reasonably-minded decent Americans to go to.”

Some of those views also cross the line, law professor Matt Steffey said. One Parler post from constitutional lawyer and Trump supporter Lin Wood said, “Get the firing squads ready. Pence goes FIRST.”

Another one told followers to remember that “ALL JOURNALISTS are soft targets and are fair game in the coming revolution.”

“It would sound like hyperbole if it weren’t for the fact that last Wednesday, an armed mob was in the Capitol, asking, ‘Where’s Pence?’, with at least some discussion of taking plans to hold people hostage and hold them for, you know, kangaroo court trials,” Steffey said.

On Friday, Google and Apple both removed Parler from their app stores after telling the company to better moderate its content and receiving no response.

Those actions came after Twitter permanently suspended President Donald Trump from its platform in the final days of his presidency, an action the ACLU disagreed with, saying it illustrated the “unwielded power” to remove people from platforms.

“Once Parler or Facebook or Twitter starts weighing in and saying, ‘No, that’s false, you can’t say that,’ they start looking less like a pass-through for information and more like a newspaper that shapes the narrative,” Steffey said.

Steffey’s point is that these overcorrective actions, while unfair to those who haven’t done anything wrong, is unfortunately what’s happening because, at the end of the day, these are public companies.

“Google, Facebook, Twitter are multibillion-dollar companies faced with a deep and widespread horror and condemnation of what happened last week. They have to be seen as doing something,” Steffey said.

The alternative, Carswell said, can’t be unnecessarily restricting other conservative voices, though.

“When you see people encouraging violence, it doesn’t matter whether the people responsible for violence are on the left or the right. If that’s not acceptable, it’s not acceptable to anyone. You can’t apply two different sets of standards,” Carswell said.

Carswell said efforts by U.S. Senator Roger Wicker to change how these companies police their comments, by amending Section 230, would requiring social media companies to judge posts with objective principles, and, if they don’t, they could be liable for that speech.

Steffey said that would actually equate to censorship because it would be a governmental entity restricting the speech, not a private company.

“However bad we think it is for Google, Facebook and Twitter to make these decisions, I doubt people sleep well thinking, ‘Well, it’d be great if Congress and the government made them,’” Steffey said.

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