Will Social Media Stop Terror, or You?

Will Social Media Stop Terror, or You?

This month, White House officials hosted a meeting with social media and tech giants Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Apple, among others. On the agenda was President Obama’s call for the companies to thwart terror groups from using those web-based communication platforms. A good idea. If we look at recent history, though, it is debatable whether these tech companies would pursue such a course without trampling traditional concepts of free speech in the process. For several years I rounded up experts in social media, technology, law, and policy and led public discussions in Washington on this subject. The consensus was that these companies take a low, unbalanced view of free speech, but also that they needed to house-clean on a voluntary, not government-mandated, basis. I proposed that technology platforms use the First Amendment as a template for their policies, even though it technically doesn’t apply to private companies. But I was skeptical whether they ever would.

The problem lies in the built-in biases of the tech sector. Take, for instance, the social experiment run last year by Israel advocacy group Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center. The group ran two equivalent “hate” rants on Facebook; one anti-Israel, the other, anti-Palestinian. When it lodged complaints to Facebook on each, Facebook said the anti-Palestinian posting violated its “community” (user) guidelines and removed it, yet it allowed the anti-Israeli posting to stand. This “hate speech” approach is a well meaning, but intellectually disastrous road. It inevitably ends up being used as a bludgeoning tool against opinions that are politically incorrect, yet perfectly legal and legitimate.

Other examples: Facebook’s removal of Gov. Mike Huckabee’s postings in favor of Chick-fil-A (the fast food company that supported traditional marriage), its take-down of conservative quips by Fox TV’s commentator Todd Starnes, and the blocking of a page by former special ops warriors when they criticized President Obama. Media tech Goliaths all have some variation of “no hate speech” policies. Apple execs used theirs to remove Chuck Colson’s Manhattan Declaration, an online statement of Christian doctrine, from its app store, and so did Google-owned YouTube when it censored sermons from a Christian pastor. And Amazon said it would disqualify groups from its “Smile” charity program if they were disapproved by left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center.

Yet, if they use a First Amendment paradigm, these companies would still have plenty of room to block calls for jihad or other violent or criminal activity as well as indecent content when youthful readers might be exposed, as long as they allow all other manner of lawful opinions. But the tide may be turning. Dean Garfield, the head of an advocacy coalition of all the major tech companies, recently said they are prepared to remove “terrorist content from their sites while respecting the rights of users to engage in legitimate, constitutionally protected speech.” Here’s hoping.

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