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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Thought police or careful editors?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: The Washington Post/Matt McClain

Are internet giants such as Facebook and Twitter a public square open to all First Amendment-protected viewpoints, or are they just like other privately owned platforms with an absolute right to control their contents and ban users?

That question has been the subject of heated debate in recent years, especially given the focus on the role of social media platforms in politics. The issue is in the spotlight again after Facebook banned several figures identified as dangerous extremists, including far-right conspiracy theory peddler Alex Jones and black nationalist hatemonger Louis Farrakhan.

The action has drawn criticism from many conservatives and libertarians who see it as an attempt to censor and control political speech — particularly on the right. President Donald Trump has used his erratic bully pulpit to tweet about the bans, promising to “monitor the censorship of American citizens on social media platforms.” Some right-wing activists advocate government sanctions; Charlie Kirk of the conservative nonprofit organization Turning Point USA urged Trump to issue “an executive order banning tech companies from getting federal contracts due to viewpoint discrimination.”

Of course, censorship is a term that properly applies only to government action, not to corporate policies. And there is an obvious irony in calls for regulation from people who usually decry socialism.

At the same time, Facebook and Twitter have billed themselves as a free marketplace of ideas. Some thoughtful commentators such as conservative writer David French have suggested that these companies should abide by First Amendment principles, which would mean a green light for everything except libel, threats of harm or incitement to violence.

Others say there’s no reason for social media to tolerate verbal abuse, hate speech or noxious conspiracy theories. Jones’ website, Infowars, has promoted the false notions that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked and that a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., was the center of a pedophile ring involving prominent Democrats.

Far too many conservative arguments against social media bans whitewash these bans’ targets, treating disinformation and hate as mere differences of opinion or suggesting that legitimate media are no better. Yes, one can find shoddy and biased reporting in the mainstream media, or extreme and arguably hateful views in opinion sections; these problems have grown worse in recent years. But that still doesn’t put those outlets on the same level as Infowars.

It’s safe to say that nothing of value was lost to intellectual or political discourse in the Facebook purge. Nonetheless, concerns about a potential slippery slope are valid. Broad concepts of hate speech can be applied to legitimate debates about everything from gender identity to rape laws to immigration to racial issues in policing. The conspiracy-theory label can be used to silence valid questions about official versions of events, such as foreign wars or criminal convictions. While the tech corporations are private, they have an extraordinary degree of power over the flow of information — and they don’t always exercise that power with responsibility.

Government meddling is not the answer. But as consumers, we can demand accountability from these platforms — such as more transparency about the rules and standards used to suspend or ban users. Otherwise, their attempts to control extremist speech will only exacerbate political polarization and destroy all remaining trust in the platforms where people of different political views still meet outside echo chambers.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.