The U.S. Constitution was born as a reaction against tyranny: political, financial, and religious. The Founding Fathers understood that the right to freedom of speech was the cornerstone on which a democratic society, as opposed to a tyrannical one, would be built.
President Trump’s decision to issue an executive order to hold social media titans accountable for suppressing this freedom of speech should not be viewed through the lens of a partial media as an act of selfishness, but should instead be recognized as the dutiful act of an elected descendant of those Founding Fathers, protecting that cornerstone.
The internet was, for many, the greatest technological innovation of the 20 century, as it allowed for information to be made freely available.
Times have changed, however. The tipping point for me was the removal of videos from YouTube that questioned the scientific rationale for lockdown during the current COVID-19 pandemic. First, there was the removal of a press conference in April 2020 given by two medically qualified doctors in California who provided a dispassionate examination of actual versus perceived threats from COVID-19. Second was the removal of a video in May 2020 by an experienced epidemiologist and former head of biostatistics at the Rockefeller University, who argued that lockdowns were based on non-validated, counterfactual models.
The justification for these instances of censorship by YouTube was that they had contradicted the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO). This explanation is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, YouTube is neither a subsidiary nor an affiliation of the WHO and thus has little grounds in promoting their views at the expense of alternative medical or scientific opinions. These alternative opinions, incidentally, are supported by many experts including professors from Stanford University as well as a retired chief European scientist.
Second, the WHO is not the authority on health, as many would have you believe. Instead of adhering to the policies of the WHO, most countries follow their own national clinical guidelines. For instance, here in the UK, we, as doctors, follow the guidelines of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) for common conditions. One may argue that matters concerning communicable diseases such as COVID-19 fall under the remit of the WHO. This is also not true, however: each country follows its own national pandemic protocols such as those of Public Health England in the UK and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the WHO is not infallible and has been shown in its history to protect the interests of a privileged few over the many. For instance, an investigation by the British Medical Journal revealed significant conflicts of interests between the upper echelons in the WHO and certain pharmaceutical companies during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. Even during the present pandemic, the WHO has simply rehearsed the controversial statements of China without critical thought.
Thus, this example of online censorship, characteristic of a widespread affliction, has little ground in reality. The president’s task in allowing alternative viewpoints on social media is not going to be easy. Many of these tech giants fall back on the argument that they are private companies and therefore have editorial discretion.
One solution would be to treat these internet titans as public utilities as they provide an essential communication service (especially during lockdown, when public gatherings are prohibited) and are effectively monopolies. This can potentially subject them to public regulation.
Another solution is to remove the illusion of these giants as indispensable to communication in our world, thus allowing us to look for alternative competition. This can be difficult as these giants have formed a coalition as powerful as that encountered by Zeus during his war against the Titans at Thessaly. This coalition feeds the illusion of their omnipotence on the internet. We often see, for example, links to Twitter and Facebook within news articles that we read. It would require a momentous effort on the part of the public to accept alternative digital platforms.
President Trump’s Executive Order doesn’t directly remove online censorship but encourages social media to take responsibility for editorial decisions. It does this by undermining Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, ironically originally created to promote free speech by giving platforms immunity from the content posted on their pages.
But confronting censorship may not be this straightforward. The internet is a labyrinth of complex pathways, and anywhere along these pathways, censorship can be exploited. For example, Cloudflare protects host websites from distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks, which otherwise cause websites to crash. Cloudflare cut off its services to a far-right website in 2017 for its insensitive comments in the wake of the Charlottesville rally, causing it to crash permanently. Although such a website may not be missed, it set an uneasy precedent in selective censorship considering Cloudflare has protected Islamic extremist websites from DDOS attacks.
This internet bias in promoting certain narratives at the expense of others is no more evident than during the current riots following the tragic death of George Floyd. While banning those peacefully protesting against lockdown, social media platforms actively encourage people to attend demonstrations against police brutality, where social distancing is ignored and where urban warfare is being waged by anarchists. Users on these platforms portray people who loot and burn buildings (sometimes with people still inside) as good but those who want to go to church or take their children to school as bad. Although Twitter censored President Trump’s federal intervention proposals to restore order, these proposals are actually supported by the silent majority, demonstrating just how out of step social media editors are with the majority of Americans, essentially creating an alternative reality.
Zeus’ leadership eventually defeated the Titans and set up a new rule from Mount Olympus, but it required persistence and intelligence. America is one of the few remaining countries preserving the right to freedom of speech in its Constitution, making it best placed to take the lead in defeating online censorship. Because of the complexities of how the internet functions, President Trump’s Executive Order in isolation would unlikely change how speech is controlled online. But it will open the debate into how best this basic right can be resurrected online and the strategies that would need to be evaluated in order to do so.