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How Should Facebook Approach Free Speech On Its Platforms?

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How Should Facebook Approach Free Speech On Its Platforms?

Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) is no stranger to controversy, and one of the latest controversial actions by the world’s largest social media company involved banning a handful of popular users such as Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer.

Facebook said the bans occurred because each of the users violated the Facebook terms of service, but the decision added fuel to the ongoing debate over how social media companies should manage free speech on their platforms.

Hate-Speech Bans

Facebook said its latest wave of bans has to do with hate speech and promotion of violence.

“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” Facebook said in the statement.

Unfortunately, because the most well-known members of the group of banned Facebook users are all vocal members of the political right, the bans rekindled accusations that Facebook’s policy policing is politically motivated. President Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have all publicly lashed out at Facebook and Twitter, Inc. (NYSE: TWTR), which has also banned Jones and others.

Section 302

From a legal perspective, critics of the decision to ban Facebook users argue online speech in America should be protected by the First Amendment, which does not specifically define or single out hate speech. However, Facebook and Twitter are actually protected under Section 320 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which grants internet companies the ability to “restrict access to or availability of material” they deem harmful, “whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”

But while Facebook’s back may be covered from a legal perspective, some still argue social media companies should voluntarily choose to hold themselves to the same standard of free speech as the Constitution.

Former Facebook senior engineering manager Brian Amerige has said Facebook certainly has the right to choose which content it hosts and which content it doesn’t. However, Amerige said silencing voices that are hurtful or ideas that are offensive does a disservice to humanity.

“You cannot prohibit controversy and offense without destroying the foundation needed to advance new ideas. History is full of important ideas, like heliocentrism and evolution, that despite later being shown to be true were seen as deeply controversial and offensive because they challenged strongly held beliefs,” Amerige recently wrote.

Keeping Advertisers Happy

From an investment standpoint, shareholders mostly want Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to keep their advertisers happy and keep the all-important ad dollars rolling in. On the surface, it may seem like a simple decision for Facebook. Advertisers don’t want their brand associated with potentially offensive content, so eliminating offensive content should keep advertisers happy. If Facebook’s policy decisions end up alienating large portions of its user base, advertisers also won’t be pleased with falling user counts or engagement metrics.

So far, controversial decisions on content policing haven’t seemed to cost Facebook many users. However, social media startup Gab has marketed itself as completely committed to free speech and reported 850,000 users as of the end of 2018.

A recent survey by Loup Ventures found that 51 percent of internet users believe more should be done to protect free speech online versus only 36.1 percent who said more should be done to limit harmful speech.

“The lean toward more being done to protect free speech was true across political philosophy, gender, age, and income, although not always by a majority,” Loup Ventures managing partner Doug Clinton wrote.

No Simple Solution

Facebook is in an extremely difficult position and is conducting a delicate balancing act between making its platform safe for its users and making sure all of its users, even controversial ones, feel they have a voice in political discussions. Without a clear solution that can keep everyone happy, Facebook will likely continue on its current path of dealing with each situation and each user on a case-by-case basis and making judgement calls that it feels will minimize overall harm to its business.

Unfortunately for investors, that approach likely means the issue of free speech versus harmful speech will continue to plague Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms for the foreseeable future.

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Posted-In: Alex Jones Brian Amerige Doug Clinton Loup VenturesPolitics Tech Media General Best of Benzinga

 

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