Eric Greitens, the former governor of Missouri, is under fire this week for his ad featuring himself, a former Navy Seal, storming a house looking for “RINOs” (or Republicans In Name Only). The ad, in my view, was inflammatory and irresponsible. At a time of rising politically-motivated violence, this type of ad, even if meant in jest, is reckless. However, Greitens has now been blocked on the ad by Facebook and tagged by Twitter, a continuation of robust censorship and “content modification” policies at these companies. This is news and there is a worthy discussion on the use of such imagery. However, we have seen how such censorship leads to ridiculous outcomes like YouTube censoring the Jan. 6th Committee because it had video clips of former President Donald Trump. Greitens has lashed out at the companies.
The ad shows Greitens declaring “Today, we’re going RINO hunting. The RINO feeds on corruption, and is marked by the stripes of cowardice. Join the MAGA crew, get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire til’ we save our country.”
Facebook has blacklisted the ad under its “policies prohibiting violence and incitement.”
On Twitter, people cannot share the tweet or reply to it, even in criticism. Twitter added a warning for abusive imagery.
Whether you find the ad humorous or horrific, it is news on various levels. There is the underlying political division in the Republican Party. There is also the use of violent imagery at a time when some Republicans are facing threats over their support for gun controls or the Jan. 6th Select Committee. These social media sites should be neutral forums for such debates.
In this controversy, Twitter at least still allowed access to the video. The question is the practical purpose of the warning beyond expressing corporate contempt over “abusive” content. There was a time when these companies did not believe that they were active participants in exchanges on their sites.
I have described myself as an Internet Originalist:
The alternative is “internet originalism” — no censorship. If social media companies returned to their original roles, there would be no slippery slope of political bias or opportunism; they would assume the same status as telephone companies. We do not need companies to protect us from harmful or “misleading” thoughts. The solution to bad speech is more speech, not approved speech.
If Pelosi demanded that Verizon or Sprint interrupt calls to stop people saying false or misleading things, the public would be outraged. Twitter serves the same communicative function between consenting parties; it simply allows thousands of people to participate in such digital exchanges. Those people do not sign up to exchange thoughts only to have Dorsey or some other internet overlord monitor their conversations and “protect” them from errant or harmful thoughts.
Social media companies seem to have written off conservatives and others with dissenting views. They have also readily embraced censorship as a noble task. Indeed, after the old Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was criticized for his massive censorship efforts, Twitter replaced him with CEO Parag Agrawal who has expressed chilling anti-free speech sentiments. In an interview with Technology Review editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield, he was asked how Twitter would balance its efforts to combat misinformation with wanting to “protect free speech as a core value” and to respect the First Amendment. Agrawal responded:
“Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation. The kinds of things that we do about this is, focus less on thinking about free speech, but thinking about how the times have changed.
One of the changes today that we see is speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard. The scarce commodity today is attention. There’s a lot of content out there. A lot of tweets out there, not all of it gets attention, some subset of it gets attention.”
He added that Twitter would be “moving towards how we recommend content and … how we direct people’s attention is leading to a healthy public conversation that is most participatory.”