Twitter’s Tryst with Freedom

The fine line between progress and chaos, freedom continues to elude mankind more than ever, and consequently our society today is a blur of the two. Be it the freedom of sexuality in India, the freedom to hold arms in the USA, or the freedom of speech throughout the world, we seem to struggle with the freedom (or the lack of it) we have given to ourselves. Twitter, the social media giant, is no different. Last week, Apple, Facebook, Spotify, YouTube, and other major social media distributors banned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ and his brand InfoWars from their websites, on account of hate speech, glorifying violence, and other violations. All major distributors, that is, except Twitter. Co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey replied to the ensuing backlash by saying that action would be taken only if Jones violated their policies, while the safety team went on to say that ‘Twitter should not be the arbiter of truth’ which resulted in another wave of criticism calling out this shrug from responsibility. After a grueling week with his safety team, he is now looking to update the rules to protect users from ‘dehumanising speech’.

This incident raises two very important questions. Firstly, what are the rules according to which free speech should be restricted, if it should be restricted at all? And secondly, in this age of social media where it has become easier than ever to use our freedom without responsibility, whose job is it to ensure prevention of misuse, and on what grounds?

The first question is relatively simpler, and can be understood with a little applied moral philosophy. As J. S. Mill says, ‘My freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins’. So it goes with our freedom- we enjoy it as long as it does not impinge the rights of our neighbour. Now as the rights of others evolve, so does the extent of our freedom. This change can be reflected by social media sites only if their policies are based not on stagnant rules written in stone, but on a code of morals that the company values. This is where Twitter fell behind, as it still struggles to understand the role it wishes to play on the internet, other than a profit-seeking communications platform.

On one hand, it claims to be the site for constructive political debates, discussions, and journalism with integrity, while on the other it allows internet trolls like Alex Jones to spread misinformation that incites violence. Case in point, the Pizzagate conspiracy in 2016 that led to shooting at Comet Ping Pong, or the harassment suffered by the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when his theory of the entire incident being staged by the parents gained massive following. This is also in direct contradiction of the restriction on personal freedom as given by Mill, seeing that Jones’ loud fist delivered a very direct hit to the victims in both cases, and hampered their right to safety and dignity.

This brings me to my next question- what happened was bad, but should Twitter care? Should any social media platform care about the content it hosts, as long as it doesn’t violate its policies? Twitter doesn’t seem to think so. As an online forum, it should remain neutral to the content, and as it’s only the messenger, it is freed from being held accountable for the message. While this ‘don’t blame the messenger’ logic may seem valid at first glance, it crumbles at the slightest scratch on the surface. For the way social media has evolved, it is both the messenger and the enabler. Twitter is not just the means through which people communicate, it is also why people are able to communicate easily. This means that it is directly responsible for all the content posted, because the content exists only if Twitter does. So it goes for all networking sites like YouTube, Facebook, etc.

While these companies seem to understand the power they have and the responsibility that thus comes with it, Twitter misses the mark entirely, maybe on purpose. Large platforms are the hotbeds of social change, and they need to acknowledge it. For whether we like it or not, it is through them that the world is changing itself. Call it CSR, but their role has expanded from service providers to people who – at least for now- have the power to bring a positive change in the world through the content they choose to condone. Agreed, controlling content is a slippery slope that can do more harm than good, but it’s a caveat that the internet giants need to employ to ensure the safety of their users, and the integrity of their brand. Let me be clear, nobody wants them to take a ‘Big Brother’ stance on this issue. It’s simply about being accountable for the content that is allowed, and taking action against individuals and companies that infringe the basic human rights of others, comparable to the likes of Alex Jones.

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