YouTube is run by a woman named Susan Wojcicki. She has indicated that videos peddling fake or unproven coronavirus remedies will be banned, and also suggested that video that “goes against” WHO guidance on the pandemic will be blocked.
So Ms Wojcicki has established WHO as the ultimate worldwide authority on Covid-19, the imprimatur of said authority being required for dissemination of any relevant information or opinions within Wojcicki’s domains. One might remind her that on January 23 of this year, WHO decided not to declare that Covid-19 was a global health emergency…hence, had Wojcicki’s present rule been in effect then, any videos asserting that C-19 was, in fact, such an emergency would have been taken down!
What is the thinking behind this sort of effort to clamp down on information flow? One can certainly understand and sympathize with a desire to avoid the dissemination of quack cures. But how does this morph into a justification for shutting down discussion of causes, risk levels, and public-policy responses to the epidemic?
If I try to take as sympathetic a view as possible to Ms Wojcicki and those like her, I might view their actions as being motivated by a feeling of responsibility for consumer protection. But Americans are more that just consumers: we are also (and much more importantly) citizens, participants in the public dialog and political process. (And an interesting argument has been made that in the American system, citizens are officers of the state.) And citizens, in order to fulfill their public responsibilities, need unfettered access to information and discussion.
In the case of Twitter’s ‘fact checking’ of President Trump’s tweet about vote-by-mail, I’d say that the raw political bias is pretty evident. Is vote-by-mail more susceptible to fraud than is conventional voting? Considerable evidence can be amassed to suggest that it is indeed so susceptible, counter-evidence and arguments can also be presented. It is a legitimate topic for public discussion, yet Twitter chooses to treat is as if it is a matter of absolute black-and-white truth-versus-falsity on which they have to weigh in, as if it were a question of the spherical vs flat shape of the earth or the value of the acceleration of gravity. (Although I see there are some flat-earth tweets up on Twitter right now.) And I haven’t seen any Twitter fact-checking of the feed from the People’s Daily of China, or the official Twitter account of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran…or, for that matter, of the statements of Joe Biden.
We are reaching a state at which the ability to publish information and have it reach certain very large audiences is dependent on the approval of certain individuals at Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook…somewhat similar to the way in which publication of a book in England, prior to 1692, required the imprimatur of the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or one of certain other specified officials. The analogy is not perfect, of course, and it will be argued that it isn’t very relevant at all, because today, if Twitter won’t distribute your content, you can always try Facebook, and if that doesn’t work either, there’s always Gab or other relatively-minor platforms, or you can just put up your own website or blog…or start your own social media platform. But, still, a very small number of entities and their officials are exercising a very high degree of control over information flow in America today.
What, if anything, can/should be done about this situation? One argument is that nothing can be or needs to be done that Twitter etc are private property, and if they discriminate excessively, other platforms will supplant them. Another argument is that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should be modified/limited…this is the provision which insulates on-line service providers such as social media companies—not only pure internet service providers or hosting companies—from certain forms of liability which are applicable to traditional publishers. This is the direction in which President Trump’s thinking seems to be going.
There is also an interesting ‘public square’ argument which has been made, specifically by Prager University in connection with the ‘restricted’ status assigned to its videos by YouTube. This is based on a 1945 Supreme Court decision in the case of Marsh v Alabama, in which the court ruled that Gulf Shipbuilding Company could not prohibit a Jehovah’s Witness from distributing literature in the the town of Chickasaw, Alabama, even though that town was Gulf Shipbuilding’s private property. The argument is that the precedent also applies to on-line communities, even though these do not involve physical presence…this argument was rejected, though, by both the district court and the Ninth Circuit…not sure whether there will be an appeal to the Supremes. (The Federalist has proposed that social media companies could be required to provide specific ‘due process’ protections for content creators, in exchange for retaining their Section 230 immunities.)
So what are your thoughts on this topic?