With much fanfare (and catchy background music) Twitter has launched the Birdwatch program, a platform that seeks to enlist the “community” to identify and comment on misinformation contained in tweets. The company will initially select 1,000 such “Birdwatchers” in its monitoring of information exchanged on its once neutral platform. Not surprisingly, many of us are not thrilled by the program. While the programs does not allow direct removal of tweets, it is clearly designed to flag tweets that the majority views as misleading. That can then be used by Twitter to further support its expanding censorship of information on the Internet.
The selected Birdwatchers will at least initially post on a public Birdwatch website as opposed to the targeted twitter account.
Adding a “community-based” system is little improvement over a purely “corporate-based” system of censorship. Twitter still maintains that it will regulate speech and this new platform effectively invites the community to help identify those tweets worthy of being flagged for possible removal or bans. The program will also likely encourage campaigns to add such flags on the Birdwatch site in order to pressure Twitter to ban opposing viewpoints. It is not clear who will watch the Birdwatchers in that sense.
The suspicion that this system is meant to enhance Twitter’s censorship policies is hard to avoid. After all, Twitter users can already flag what they view as misinformation by responding directly to a Tweet or using their own account to do so. This is an effort to build a consensus in a community that could be used to support the company in what is rumored to be plans for “much bigger” moves on speech regulation. Many critics are not satisfied with being able to respond to opposing viewpoints with their own views. They want to silence opposing viewpoints and control information exchange. Just recently, former Facebook executive Alex Stamos told CNN’s Brian Stelter that we must find new ways to cut off “conservative influencers” including cable news: “We have to turn down the capability of these Conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences… There are people on YouTube for example that have a larger audience than daytime CNN.”
For free speech advocates, the use of such community-based systems is a familiar method of speech curtailment and controls. Popular speech does not need protection. The key to free speech is the protection of speech that a community or the majority does not favor.
Notably, when Dorsey appeared before the Senate to apologize for the blackout on the Hunter Biden scandal before the election as a mistake, Democratic senators demanded more censorship. Dorsey agreed that “misleading information, as you are aware, is a large problem. It’s hard to define it completely and cohesively.” Instead of then raising concerns over censoring views and comments on the basis for such an amorphous category, Senator Chris Coons pressed him to expand the categories of censored material to prevent people from sharing any views that he considers “climate denialism.”
One of the loudest voices for censorship has been Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal who seemed to take the opposite meaning from Twitter admitting that it was wrong to censor the Biden story. Blumenthal said that he was “concerned that both of your companies are, in fact, backsliding or retrenching, that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” Accordingly, he demanded an answer to this question:
“Will you commit to the same kind of robust content modification playbook in this coming election, including fact checking, labeling, reducing the spread of misinformation, and other steps, even for politicians in the runoff elections ahead?”
“Robust content modification” has a certain Orwellian feel to it. It is not content modification. It is censorship. If the Democratic party is going crackdown on free speech, it should admit to being the party of censorship and join those who have insisted “China is right.”
I am an unabashed Internet originalist. I have long opposed the calls for censorship under the pretense of creating “an honest Internet.” We have have been discussing how writers, editors, commentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. The erosion of free speech has been radically accelerated by the Big Tech and social media companies. The level of censorship and viewpoint regulation has raised questions of a new type of state media where companies advance an ideological agenda with political allies.
As I have previously written, we are witnessing the death of free speech on the Internet. What is particularly concerning is the common evasion used by academics and reporters that this is not really a free speech issue because these are private companies. The First Amendment is designed to address government restrictions on free speech. As a private entity, Twitter is not the subject of that amendment. However, private companies can still destroy free speech through private censorship. I have previously discussed this aspect of speech controls as the “Little Brother problem.” President Trump can be chastised for converting a “Little Brother” into a “Big Brother” problem. However, that does alter the fundamental threat to free speech. This is the denial of free speech, a principle that goes beyond the First Amendment. Indeed, some of us view free speech as a human right.
Consider racial or gender discrimination. It would be wrong regardless if federal law only banned such discrimination by the government. The same is true for free speech. The First Amendment is limited to government censorship, but free speech is not limited in the same way. Those of us who believe in free speech as a human right believe that it is morally wrong to deny it as either a private or governmental entity. That does not mean that there are not differences between governmental and private actions. For example, companies may control free speech in the workplaces. They have a recognized right of free speech. However, the social media companies were created as forums for speech. Indeed, they sought immunity on the false claim that they were not making editorial decisions or engaging viewpoint regulation. No one is saying that these companies are breaking the law in denying free speech. We are saying that they are denying free speech as companies offering speech platforms.
That is why these seemingly harmless Birdwatchers are a concern for some of us. They are being added as a community component to an expanding system of Internet censorship. As they watch their neighbors and Twitter watches them, free speech will further decline on the Internet.