Twitter recently came under severe pressure for allowing the Taliban to keep their account on its platform. By way of contrast, the company decided to suspend Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene for repeatedly tweeting that COVID vaccines are ineffective. In the eyes of many Americans, Twitter should have done the exact opposite. For my part, I cannot help but think that Twitter is within its right to behave as it did.
Since 2019, I have been teaching social media ethics to the aspiring computer scientists of Silicon Valley. When my students ask me about the extent of their right to free speech on social media, my answer is quite radical: they do not have a right to freedom of expression on such platforms. This is because Twitter is not a town square, and we should stop treating it like one.
Traditionally, the language of free speech is used to protect citizens from censorship when government actors abuse their power and stifle dissent. In recent years, however, social media critics have increasingly used this language to describe a very different relationship: that which exists between powerful private actors and users who generate content on their platforms.
From a legal point of view, the distinction between public and private matters. Citizens’ right to free speech in public spaces does not immediately translate into a right to say what they please in privately-owned spaces. By way of example, members of the public do not have a right to publish what they want in the newspaper of their choice. That the Wall Street Journal will not publish my left-wing op-eds might irk me, but this does not give me a right to demand it does so. If we conceive of social media platforms as publishers, they, therefore, have a right to control what content circulates on their platform. Indeed, the comparison between publishers and social media platforms is not far-fetched: just like editors of newspapers decide what goes on the front page, Twitter’s algorithms determine what users see first in their feed when they log into their account.
Of course, we might reject the publisher analogy and envision social media platforms as virtual spaces which are part of the new online public sphere. This does not make them town squares, neither literally nor metaphorically. Again, such spaces are privately owned, which means that they are more akin to public accommodations, that is, private facilities which are used by the public at large such as restaurants and clubs.
Public accommodations are subject to anti-discrimination law. For instance, a restaurant owner cannot refuse service to customers on the grounds that they are differently-abled or practice a particular religion. Yet, anti-discrimination legislation targeted at public accommodations does not extend to “viewpoint discrimination.” For instance, it would be quite strange for a white supremacist to argue that she is the victim of discrimination because her university’s Anti-Racist League denies her membership on the grounds of her political views. If Twitter is a public accommodation, then it might similarly have a right to exclude viewpoints that run contrary to its executives’ values.
In my view, abusing the language of free speech prevents us from having a fruitful democratic debate on the right to exclude viewpoints from private spaces. Accepting to engage in such debate does not mean that we have to grant tech companies unlimited powers. If we – the people – dislike the fact that social media platforms currently regulate content as they please, we can change anti-discrimination law and collectively decide which perspectives they should be obligated to include. From a philosophical point of view, however, shouting “free speech” on a crowded social media platform does not accomplish anything; it simply blurs the lines between the public and the private.
Rejecting the town square model of Twitter is not merely a matter of philosophical clarity, but also of democratic power. In fact, my suggestion is to conceive of social media firms as private spaces that can be regulated by the government. Yet, people who shout “free speech” are under the mistaken impression that Twitter is the government. This comes at a great cost. If Twitter is our tyrant, then the best we can do is beg it to behave differently.
Twitter is no tyrant, and we are not supplicants. We do have elected representatives whose responsibility it is to protect citizens’ fundamental rights as opposed to the interest of shareholders. In the end, the power to regulate big tech belongs to the democratically accountable, not to big tech itself. If they are to succeed, our grievances should be directed at them.
About the author
Étienne Brown is an assistant professor of philosophy at San José State University, holds a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, and is a Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project. He teaches the philosophy of law and the ethics of technology to the aspiring computer scientists of Silicon Valley.