This article originally appeared in Tech News World on July 12, 2019.
Ravelry, an online knitting community that has more than 8 million members, last month announced that it would ban forum posts, projects, patterns and even profiles from users who supported President Trump or his administration.
“We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy,” the administrators of Ravelry posted on the site on June 23.
“Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy,” the post added.
The administrators have maintained that they aren’t endorsing Democrats or banning Republicans. Users who do support the administration have been told they can still participate — they just can’t voice their support on Ravelry.
Ravelry’s move was met with both an outpouring of support from those who opposed the administration’s policies and condemnation from those who support the president.
Ravelry is not the first online community to issue such an ultimatum to users. The roleplaying game portal RPGnet last fall issued a decree that support for President Trump would be banned on its forums.
“Support for elected hate groups aren’t welcome here,” the administrators posted. “We can’t save the world, but we can protect and care for the small patch that is this board.”
Is It Censorship?
The banning of conservative groups hasn’t been limited to Ravelry or RPGnet. Facebook last fall announced that it had purged more than 800 U.S. accounts that it identified as flooding users with politically oriented spam.
However, some conservatives — including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — have argued that Facebook has unfairly targeted those expressing conservative opinions. Cruz this spring raised his concerns with representatives from Facebook and Twitter during the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution’s hearing, “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse.”
The threat of political censorship could be problematic due to the lack of transparency Cruz noted during the April hearing.
“If Big Tech wants to be partisan political speakers it has that right,” he said, “but it has no entitlement to a special immunity from liability under Section 230 that The New York Times doesn’t enjoy, that The Washington Postdoesn’t enjoy — that nobody else enjoys other than Big Tech.”
Understanding Section 230
Much of the debate revolves around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the common name for Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As part of a landmark piece of Internet legislation in the United States, it provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” that publishes information provided by third-party users.
The law basically says that those who host or republish speech are not legally responsible for what others say and do. That includes not only Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or Verizon, but also any services that publish third-party content, which would include the likes of Facebook and Ravelry.
One of Section 230’s authors, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has countered that the law was intended to make sure that companies could moderate their respective websites without fear of lawsuits.
Striking a Balance
The divide online is of course just a mirror of the deep political divide in the U.S., and it is unlikely that legal wording will do much to heal it. Battle lines have been drawn, and both sides continue to dig in. The question is whether banning those with differing opinions actually helps or hurts matters.
There is an argument that this is simply defusing controversy and silencing the most extreme voices.
“It was once shared with me that intolerance of intolerance is intolerance,” said Nathaniel Ivers, associate professor and chairman of the department of counseling at Wake Forest University.
“We often think of intolerance as an inherently negative thing; however, there are instances in which communities, groups and organizations are justified in establishing zero tolerance clauses for certain behaviors and ideologies,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“The challenge, however, is that these clauses are innately rigid and may at times exclude ideas, attitudes and behaviors that are benign,” Ivers added.
Then there is the concern of whether this is an issue of censorship. However, those who understand media law know that in the legal sense, censorship applies to the government and media. Private companies actually are within their rights to determine what is appropriate for their audiences.
“Does Ravelry have the right to censor?” pondered social media consultant Lon Safko.
“Sure they do. It’s their site, and they can do anything they want short of child pornography,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Facebook’s and Ravelry’s decisions to ban some content have been based on what each views as “extremist” in nature. This may reflect the deep divide in the nation, but is the action inappropriate?
“Generally speaking, social media companies — like other companies — have significant leeway in running their business in the manner of their choosing, as long as they do not violate applicable laws,” said Robert Foehl, executive in residence for the business law and ethics department at the Ohio University Online Master of Business Administration program.
“When making all kinds of business decisions, companies are increasingly considering the impacts, both positive and negative, on the various stakeholders of the company — owners/investors/shareholders, for sure, but also other important stakeholders, such as customers, employees, and communities/society,” he told TechNewsWorld.
This is why Facebook last year began following the lead of eBay and other online sites that have banned the sale of items of a questionable nature. Among them are items of the Third Reich. While some legitimate collectors who see the historical value in such items have voiced concern, Facebook’s decision was based in part on how they could be linked to extremist groups.
“Social media companies have long maintained content policies that govern what is deemed acceptable content for their product and users can freely choose whether they want to agree with those policies and use the product, or disagree and not become a customer of the company,” Foehl suggested.
“This trend signals a tipping point in the Internet’s 30-year history, and in particular the data ecosystem it has brought forth with its growing encroachment into people’s private lives,” added Chris Olson, CEO of The Media Trust.
“There is a fine line between hate speech and the right to free speech,” Olson told TechNewsWorld. “As with all rights, there comes responsibility — like the responsibility not to ruin people’s lives nor start a riot.”
A greater concern than whether personal opinions — even those that some may find distasteful — are being silenced is what this means for the political debate. Is one side, notably the conservative voice, being cut out of the debate?
“Over the last few years, concerns about freedom of speech, censorship, and social media’s role in political communication have come to the forefront,” noted Ohio University’s Foehl.
“Given the pervasiveness and importance of social media platforms as a means of communication and connection in today’s societies, these concerns are timely and legitimate,” he added.
It is important not to inadvertently conflate issues, Foehl noted.
“It is important to remember that the constitutional right to freedom of speech in the United States protects against inappropriate restrictions on speech by state actors — in essence, the government and related institutions,” he explained. “So, citizens are free to express ideas through speech in the town square without governmental interference. In the United States, social media companies are not state actors; thus the freedom of speech protections afforded by the Constitution do not apply to speech contained in their platforms.”
The Ethics Question
One question then is whether Facebook or other social media companies — as well as firms like Ravelry and RPG.net — actually have acted unethically. That could depend in large part on their intentions in disallowing certain content.
“If the intent is to remove content that could reasonably be seen to cause harm to, or if the content does not respect the dignity or autonomy of, individuals or a group of people, then it is very likely that the company acted ethically when removing the content,” said Foehl.
“On the other hand, if content was removed in order to attempt to impose the ideology of the company’s executives, political or otherwise, on others, then the content removal would be ethically suspect,” he added.
“Of course, this is the rub — those whose content has been removed many times feel it is because of ideological conflicts with the content decision makers; and President Trump has been especially vocal about his view that political bias is the basis for many content decisions,” Foehl noted.
However, social media companies may not have overstepped any existing authority, given their role in society today.
“Companies are not state actors, and they have the authority to develop their products as they see fit, as long as they comply with applicable laws,” emphasized Foehl.
“The development, implementation, and enforcement of clearly communicated content guidelines are a [requirement] of customer trust. Customers have the autonomy to decide whether they want to do business with the company,” he added.
Equal Time and Fairness
Some conservatives could argue that they are being shut out of the dialogue online, but there are precedents to consider. The first is the equal time rule, which is specific to elections. It requires that U.S. radio and television broadcast stations must provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates who request it.
However, that applies to elections and to the broadcast medium, so those who suggest that Ravelry’s ban is a violation misunderstand the law.
The other law is the FCC’s fairness doctrine, a policy introduced in 1949 that requires the holders of broadcast licenses to present both sides of controversial issues. The FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 — and that move may have been instrumental in leading to the proliferation of conservative talk radio.
As the Internet is now maturing, this issue may need to be reconsidered.
“The government, industry and Internet public will have to agree to a set of standards — all of which are still being hammered out and tried,” said The Media Trust’s Olson.
“This industry attempt is merely the result of a larger set of problems, like pointing fingers at outdated laws and regulations, social media platforms, or people’s uncontrolled impulses,” he added.
“The solution lies in everyone working together in crafting better governance policies that can be applied as a minimum around the world,” said Olson. “With technology outpacing laws and norms, the path forward is a rocky one until the base standards are hammered out.”
Consequences of the Discourse
In the end this banning of conservatives — whether for legitimate concerns or petty grievances — could fracture communities and ultimately be bad for business.
“Censorship is bad for Ravelry’s business,” said Safko. “If they don’t allow pro-Trump, then as a business site, they should not allow anti-Trump or any political postings.”
Failure to do so could result in legislation and strict rules — something that isn’t good for a free and open discussion of issues and civil debate.
“A potential issue with rigid laws, policies, or regulations, is that they can, over time, create a very homogeneous community,” said Wake Forest University’s Ivers.
“In such communities, people may, for a time, feel more comfortable; however, these groups also may become fertile ground for stereotypes and xenophobia,” he warned.
“It is important to clarify that the social media sites like Ravelry and RPGnet that have banned content related specifically to President Trump have made the decision that he is inextricably linked to hate speech — speech that attacks a person or group based on protected characteristics such as race, religion, disability and sexual orientation,” explained Foehl.
“They have not banned content based on where such content falls on the political spectrum,” he added.
As a result, social media companies find themselves in a very difficult situation when it comes to removing content.
“This situation is exacerbated by social media’s prevalence and importance in the exchange of ideas in the modern world,” said Foehl.
“The decision to remove content should not be taken lightly and must pass ethical scrutiny,” he added. “Employing a sound and formal governance structure that allows content removal decisions to be made quickly — but not hastily — and independently [from company executives] is advisable. The criteria for content removal should be developed with a mind toward ensuring doing no harm and treating others with respect and dignity, while allowing for the exercise of personal autonomy.”