Last week something extraordinary happened: Twitter briefly suspended the official account of the president of the United States, preventing him from posting until he deleted a tweet it said violated its rules. From merely hiding the president’s tweets, as it had done before, the company briefly stopped him from tweeting altogether.
Then, three days later, Yelp announced it would start formally flagging businesses accused of racism based solely on media reports.
Those two developments crystallized once again a key question that increasingly shadows our age: How can the growing power of social media companies coexist with the foundations of democracy? A democratic society rests upon an informed citizenry free to openly debate their shared future. The First Amendment guarantees this, enshrining both the right of the press to cover the unvarnished reality of daily events and the right of the public to consider all ideas, even those possibly deemed harmful by the majority of society. Pundits who laud social-media censorship would do well to remember that calls for the rights we hold dear today, including universal suffrage and civil rights, were once deemed the same kind of “harmful” speech that in today’s world would likely be banned by social media.
Social platforms were once viewed as a way to promote democracy to the world, granting unfettered freedom of expression and unfiltered access to information. Today they enforce ever-changing opaque rules of “acceptable speech” and define “truth.” Even more troubling, the journalism world is increasingly embracing Silicon Valley’s new role as Ministry of Truth rather than condemning it.
Emboldened by the media’s support for muzzling a president many news outlets despise, Silicon Valley companies have ramped up their censorship of elected officials. It was just five months ago that Twitter first visibly flagged an official statement of the U.S. government as “misleading.” With such censoring becoming almost routine now, it becomes front page news only when a social platform doesn’t censor the president.
Yet Twitter’s suspension of President Trump’s Twitter account last week crossed a new line. What would have happened if a national emergency such as an earthquake or coordinated terrorist or cyberattack had struck during this period, with the president ability to communicate with the American public compromised? Such disasters could have impaired Twitter’s ability to quickly restore his access, and it is unclear if they would have done so even in a national disaster. [ … ]