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Are social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook limiting free speech and the First Amendment?

Multiple Viewpoints

It’s natural to seek out news and opinions that support our own views, and avoid whatever challenges us to think deeper about issues. This article will likely reinforce and also challenge your views. Please consider reading the various perspectives presented here, and then provide comments and feedback with any suggestions of how to improve the article. Thanks.

There are additional news updates at the end of this article.

Another Unexplained Public Termination

I opened Twitter a moment ago, and saw the following post from Ron Paul at the top of the feed.

I’m not a Libertarian, and I don’t follow Ron Paul closely, but I don’t recall him ever posting anything treasonous, illegal, or in violation of Facebook policy. As a Libertarian, Ron Paul has positions that overlap with liberal and conservative views.

When social media services take action to block users there is typically a lack of transparency, absence of any warnings, no details about specifically what content violated the rules, and typically no way to talk to anybody about the problem. These are powerful institutions, seemingly without any accountability. This is what concerns many people regardless of their political views.

Here’s an excerpt from Ron Paul’s newsletter posted today just before he was targeted and had his Facebook page locked. It’s the only recent content that could have resulted in a take down order.

Last week’s massive social media purges – starting with President Trump’s permanent ban from Twitter and other outlets – was shocking and chilling, particularly to those of us who value free expression and the free exchange of ideas. The justifications given for the silencing of wide swaths of public opinion made no sense and the process was anything but transparent. Nowhere in President Trump’s two “offending” Tweets, for example, was a call for violence expressed explicitly or implicitly. It was a classic example of sentence first, verdict later.

Many Americans viewed this assault on social media accounts as a liberal or Democrat attack on conservatives and Republicans, but they are missing the point. The narrowing of allowable opinion in the virtual public square is no conspiracy against conservatives. As progressives like Glenn Greenwald have pointed out, this is a wider assault on any opinion that veers from the acceptable parameters of the mainstream elite, which is made up of both Democrats and Republicans.

Source: Ron Paul Weekly Column, 11 Jan 2021 [View]

I would challenge his first paragraph. It obviously wasn’t Trump’s two recent tweets that resulted in him being banned, but his possible role in fomenting the attack on the Capitol. If Twitter and Facebook wanted to silence Trump, they would have done so over the past 5 years, but instead they have given him a platform. Some say social media was so accommodating and supportive, that they facilitated his rise to power. His previous campaign manager has conveyed this during interviews. Social media has been a strong ally of Trump.

Ron Paul’s statement about liberals and conservatives both being targets of censorship from big tech seems valid. Each group in their own bubble perceives that they are the target, when it’s really everyone who is subject to the overlords who determine what speech and ideas are permissible.

The Case for Allowing Unpopular Speech

We’re at a moment where social media platforms desperately need to reassure the public that they are open forums for reasonable dialog.

These social media platforms are privately owned, but their function has increasingly been to provide public communal spaces online. So there’s an expectation that one can speak just as freely on a social media platform as they could from a bench in the city park.

Attempts to target and silence one group or viewpoint will most likely result in a severe backlash, infusing people with more determination to fight, motivating them to donate more money, giving them proof that they are being oppressed, and pushing them into the dark web where they will be further radicalized and can’t be seen.

While companies are not required to provide unfettered free speech to all, it seems prudent for companies to play a role in promoting free speech.

In an ironic contradiction, Twitter released this statement regarding free speech.

Liberals Cancelling Liberals

A few years ago I was watching videos on YouTube and discovered Dave Rubin. At the time, he was an outspoken liberal/progressive with long-format interviews. What made Dave different is that he didn’t want to have a one-sided show. He invited conservatives on his show to hear their views and have a discussion. It was one of the most refreshing and unique shows on YouTube.

These were long interviews. So, rather than hearing a soundbite taken out of context to vilify an opponent, the viewer would be able to understand others better. Dave was attempting to have a civilized dialog between people of differing viewpoints — something desperately needed in our society at the time. Surprisingly, he would find some common ground with his conservative guests. He would also have some liberal guests.

One of the guests he had on the show was Lindsay Shepherd, the Canadian college teacher who allowed a variety of viewpoints on gender pronouns in her classroom by including a video from public television. As news of the incident spread, Shepherd was accused of being an alt-right conservative and ridiculed for being transphobic. She was told that she had created a toxic climate, an unsafe learning environment, engaged in gendered violence, and that her actions were in violation of Canadian human rights laws. The incident sparked an international controversy and was discussed in Canadian Parliament. Shepherd was at risk of losing her job, having her career destroyed, and forever having her character besmirched in national media. As a liberal progressive, she didn’t like being labeled as an alt-right extremist. She believed that the intersection of academia and liberalism should allow open diverse discussions in the classroom. Eventually all charges were dropped and an apology was issued. [Learn More]

If Dave had a “mission” it would have been to help bring positive reforms to liberalism that would make it more tolerant and effective in achieving the stated goals and outcomes of traditional liberalism. For example, Dave pointed out some things the Democratic Party was doing wrong that would be counterproductive and cause them to lose the 2016 election — like referring to Republicans as a basket of deplorables. His critiques of the Democratic Party and constructive suggestions caused some to think he was a conservative. He just wanted his party to do better.

Free speech is one of the topics Dave would explore on his channel. He interviewed people who had been removed from social media platforms. This raised some red flags because those who had been cancelled elsewhere were given voice through Dave’s channel. His intention was to have a discussion about free speech and examine why some people would be cancelled. Some people would get cancelled, immediately cut off from their followers, and then not be given a chance to share their side or defend themselves. So, Dave reached out to give them that chance.

At some point, someone saw Dave’s show, and perhaps without knowing more about him, put out the call to have him “cancelled.” He was labeled as an alt-right radical extremist because of his associations with conservatives. He believed that YouTube was also limiting his account, and offered some evidence to support that claim.

After repeated attacks, death threats, and baseless accusations from those on the left, Dave was pushed to befriend conservatives. He was a liberal, with liberal views, that conservatives liked because he was willing to have a discussion. Eventually the liberals converted Ruben into a conservative through their hatred, vitriol, and intolerance.

VICE News is a news agency consistently labeled as left leaning by media analysts. They were the news agency chosen to accompany Barack Obama and Eric Holder on their historic visit to a Federal Prison. They occasionally produce documentaries that include interviews with cult leaders and radical militant right-wing extremists. They believe that ‘liberal news’ should include all viewpoints and unbiased reporting without much commentary. As a result, some people who don’t know about VICE have labeled them as an alt-right news agency and have tried to cancel them. A recent slanderous accusation tried to associate VICE with a white nationalist militant group.

In summary, there are numerous examples where self-righteous self-proclaimed “woke” vigilantes are on a short fuse and ready to viciously attack anyone who says something they don’t like. This certainly doesn’t foster an atmosphere of free speech.

I share the above stories because they illustrate how there can be knee-jerk uninformed, reactionary, extremist, intolerant, unfounded attacks on people of all viewpoints. This harms liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between.

As Ron Paul pointed out in his message above, these aren’t just liberals trying to silence conservatives, but intolerant people of all persuasions going after anyone they don’t like among their own tribe or others.

When Public Spaces are Privately Owned

Increasingly public spaces are privately owned. When you walk into a coffee shop, you waive many of your constitutional rights. The WiFi service may track what sites are visited and restrict content. Video cameras record your actions. Those interested in the 2nd Amendment will lose that right. Your right to free speech is restricted. Most establishments will ask you to leave if you begin delivering a speech that is disruptive or conflicts with the company’s culture and message.

So, in today’s privately owned public forums, you can lose your freedom of speech, your right to privacy, and your right to carry firearms (for example). Most people don’t give this any thought since their words and actions don’t conflict with the rules of businesses, and they don’t feel a need to walk around with firearms looking like Rambo.

The businesses we frequent and most places of employment have very restrictive rules for behavior, grooming, clothing, speech, and even guidelines to what is permitted when not at work.

When you buy a home, you feel it is yours to do with as you please, but you are legally bound to abide by the neighborhood covenants.

Life is filled with rules, regulations, and restrictions. So, the romanticized notion of Constitutional Rights is really just an ideal that we aspire to achieve, but it doesn’t permeate all corners of our society.

As a result, we don’t necessarily have a constitutional right to say anything we want on social media, even if it is benign and otherwise seemingly protected by the First Amendment. The owner of the social media platform can ask us to leave, just as a business can ask anyone to leave. Rules can be established that make it easy to kick people out. We can’t demand that a publisher print our book. We can’t demand that the local newspaper publish our column or letter to the editor. The same is true with social media.

In this context, freedom of speech isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.

Twitter Banning the President

Three days ago, Twitter locked the account of the President of the United States. This was an unprecedented indecent. Never before has such a high profile person had their account frozen.

Above, Ron Paul holds the position that the President’s two most recent Tweets should not have been grounds for his account to be shut down, and thus, according to Ron Paul (and others) the shut down represents an uncalled for act of censorship and a politically motivated attack.

As mentioned previously, Twitter’s decision to shut down the President’s account was probably not based on his two most recent tweets, but instead based on what appeared to be his ongoing messaging and culminating speech that resulted in a violent attack on the Capitol. After the Capitol attack, his followers publicly vowed to wage an unending violent war against the United States.

The President described the Vice President as someone not defending the Constitution, and so the President’s supporters immediately attempted to assassinate the Vice President. One of the President’s previous staff members, said that those who aren’t loyal should have their heads put on pikes outside the White House. This sentiment was echoed at the Capitol attack. One of those present was asked, “What now?” The response was, “Heads on pikes!” The President’s lead attorney commanded the crowd, “let’s have trial by combat!” There have been numerous calls for violence, and those materialized into violence reflective of the rhetoric. Police guarding the Capitol were attacked and killed, and then apparently not mourned by the White House where flags were not lowered. When attackers were asked why they were there, the answer was, “Because our commander told us to be here.”

Before you form an opinion about the attack on the Capitol, you should watch the raw footage from the event and arrive at an informed conclusion. [View]

Below is a statement from Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican regarding her assessment of the Capitol attack.

So, given the current climate, and given the propensity of some to have violent interpretations of the President’s messaging, and given that the President’s followers have promised more violence, Twitter and other social media platforms decided that they didn’t want their services used to launch additional violent attacks against citizens and government facilities.

Given the repeated promises of violence, and numerous calls to kill the Vice President, the shutting down of the President’s account was probably about national security. There was concern that he could make further statements that would result in violence and deaths.

Shutdown May Be Counterproductive

At the time of writing this article, a search of Twitter for the President’s Twitter account name produces zero results. It appears all his Tweets are gone as well. [View] His name is still referenced in Tweets, but none of his posts show up.

Deleting all of Trump’s tweets shuts down public conversation about Trump. What about all of the comments people wrote in response to his tweets? Those seem to be gone also. What about the tweets that people re-tweeted to their own pages with comments of their own? Those seem to be gone also. Positive and negative responses are all gone. It’s as if he never existed. This seems sort of like a nuclear option.

They’ve not only deleted his words, but the comments and writings of others where those appear conjoined to his tweets. Those who feel they wrote the perfect response (supportive or critical) to something Trump said will find their words are now deleted. For this reason, I feel the action Twitter took may be counterproductive and result in an otherwise avoidable backlash.


Unfortunately, the shutting down of the President’s Twitter account comes at a time when conservatives feel they are being silenced. So, to them it’s just another example of big tech silencing them. Having additional conservatives being unilaterally shut down for no clear violation of terms just makes things worse.

What the public doesn’t see are the private communications between users on platforms. Perhaps publicly someone posts fairly innocuous statements, but their private messages seem to be illegal in nature, such as “Let’s attack the Capitol on Wednesday.” There may also be government agencies involved that have additional intelligence on people. Also, if legal action is to be taken, a user’s communications may need to be frozen and archived as evidence. So, there are many reasons a user account could be taken down.

Words, Actions, and Inaction Fostering Violence

The commentary below from Marco Rubio helps to clarify the concerns above.

Enduring Crime Syndicates and Terrorist Organizations

Throughout history and around the world we know that enduring crime syndicates and terrorist organizations in some cases have many peaceful members. They may be accepted as a legitimate political party in some countries. This large group of peaceful supporters helps finance and legitimize the organization. The publicly stated goals of the organization seem peaceful and lofty. The organization donates to schools, hospitals, churches, and charitable causes.

When the military arm of the organization carries out a violent strike, then the organization can say that the small group does not represent the whole. This helps insulate the organization from criticism, and provides plausible deniability for the organization’s leadership. There may not even be a formal communication or chain of command with the militia-arm of the organization. A common refrain is, “We can’t control what others decide to do.” The leadership permit the violent actions, they do not denounce the violent actions, and they do not mourn the loss of life.

So, it’s possible for a large seemingly legitimate organization to continue building its membership with the intention of growing a funding source and radicalizing some members. In the same way that a country has a military, some organizations have thugs to carry out some assignments.

I’m not claiming that the President has used his position and influence to create an organized global crime syndicate. But some people may perceive his organization to be functioning in a similar manner. This is relevant because while most of his followers are reasonable and peaceful, some of his more passionate supporters can easily be sparked to violence.


There’s no simple answer to concerns about moderating and policing online social media services and forums. One hopes that an open public forum of reasonable people will be self governing. While direct calls to violence are easily identified, what’s more complicated is the building up of groups that may be used in the future for violence, and the question of what to do with leaders of such organizations.

Note: Twitter announced that it has recently suspended 70,000 accounts that were associated with promoting conspiracies that could lead to violence. [View]

Statement from Apple via CNBC (13 Jan 2021)

Tim Cook: Parler can get back on the App Store if it complies with terms of service.

CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” crew discusses the backlash social media app Parler has received following pro-Trump supporters storming the Capitol last week. Several different corporations including Apple and hosting service AWS have objected to Parler’s policy of not moderating content.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that anyone with a role in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week should be held accountable. Cook did not exempt President Donald Trump from that statement.

“I think no one is above the law,” Cook told CBS’ Gayle King in a clip that aired on Tuesday. “I mean that’s the great thing about our country, we’re a rule-of-law country. I think everyone that had a part in it needs to be held accountable.”

Cook said that the events are not something the country should just seek to move on from, though he did say eventually “we need to move forward.”

“I don’t think we should let it go,” Cook said. “I think holding people accountable is important.”

Apple removed Parler, an alternative social media app, from its App Store on Saturday after finding that it was being used to spread calls of violence in the wake of the Capitol riots, in violation of its rules against objectionable content.

Cook has maintained a relatively close but balanced relationship with Trump during his time in office. While Cook has criticized key Trump policies such as his decision to terminate DACA, the Obama-era program that protects some immigrants from deportation, and ran a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in 2016, he has managed to gain Trump’s support more than the leaders of many other Big Tech companies have.

Statement from Twitter

On 13 Jan 2021 at 6:16 PM, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made the following statement:

I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?

I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.

That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.

Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.

The check and accountability on this power has always been the fact that a service like Twitter is one small part of the larger public conversation happening across the internet. If folks do not agree with our rules and enforcement, they can simply go to another internet service.

This concept was challenged last week when a number of foundational internet tool providers also decided not to host what they found dangerous. I do not believe this was coordinated. More likely: companies came to their own conclusions or were emboldened by the actions of others.

This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.

Yes, we all need to look critically at inconsistencies of our policy and enforcement. Yes, we need to look at how our service might incentivize distraction and harm. Yes, we need more transparency in our moderation operations. All this can’t erode a free and open global internet.

The reason I have so much passion for #Bitcoin is largely because of the model it demonstrates: a foundational internet technology that is not controlled or influenced by any single individual or entity. This is what the internet wants to be, and over time, more of it will be.

We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media. Our goal is to be a client of that standard for the public conversation layer of the internet. We call it @bluesky:

Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.

This will take time to build. We are in the process of interviewing and hiring folks, looking at both starting a standard from scratch or contributing to something that already exists. No matter the ultimate direction, we will do this work completely through public transparency.

It’s important that we acknowledge this is a time of great uncertainty and struggle for so many around the world. Our goal in this moment is to disarm as much as we can, and ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding, and a more peaceful existence on earth.

I believe the internet and global public conversation is our best and most relevant method of achieving this. I also recognize it does not feel that way today. Everything we learn in this moment will better our effort, and push us to be what we are: one humanity working together.

Source: Twitter, 13 Jan 2021 at 6:16 PM [View]

UPDATE: 14 Jan 2021 at 9:06 AM

NBC News reported that some legal analysts believe that Trump’s speech did not meet the definition of incitement:

Speech is not “incitement” unless (1) there is proof that the speaker intended the speech to produce imminent lawlessness and (2) the speech is likely to produce that lawlessness.

Speech with only violent imagery would be protected by the First Amendment. Even the mere tendency of speech to encourage unlawful acts is not enough to punish it, according to the Supreme Court.

Punishable incitement must “specifically advocate” for listeners to take unlawful action, give the crowd detailed instructions on how to break the law or enlist the crowd to carry out a criminal act, the court has said.

Source: NBC News, 14 Jan 2021 at 9:06 AM [View]

In addition to the above limitations, it is known that many of those attacking the Capitol had been planning the attack in advance. The FBI notified local authorities the day before. So, that complicates any claims that it was entirely the President’s speech that instigated the event.

UPDATE: 13 Jan 2021 at 5:02 PM

Bans on the President appear to have been lifted. Here is his message upon returning to social media. It appears on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. So, the promise to never let him communicate through Twitter again lasted a few days.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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