Social media companies continued to assert their power over the political sphere this week, with Twitter temporarily suspending the Trump campaign’s ability to post until it removed a clip of a Fox News interview with the president regarding COVID-19. When the Democratic National Committee reposted the video to debunk it, Twitter similarly banned the DNC from tweeting until it too deleted the footage. With Twitter seemingly unbothered by the implications of suspending a presidential campaign’s account just 12 weeks before the election, what might the future hold as control of our public squares is increasingly centralized?
Twitch became the first social media platform to formally suspend a presidential candidate’s account this past June when it deleted two of President Trump’s campaign rally videos for violations of its “hateful conduct” rules. In doing so, it emphasized the divide between physical and virtual campaigning. At an in-person rally a candidate can present the policy proposals he or she believes supporters want. Virtual rallies, however, are policed by an army of moderators enforcing ever-changing acceptable speech policies, forcing politicians to self-censor or risk deletion from the online world that increasingly shapes elections.
In the case of this week’s ban, the story is all the more remarkable because the video in question was actually a cable TV interview with the nation’s leader, meaning that social platforms were in effect banning a major news organization’s reporting. As news is increasingly consumed through social media, the upshot is that the online platform’s acceptable speech rules are being applied to traditional news outlets.
Additionally, rather than link the video to an outside fact check, Facebook simply deleted it as “a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation” while Twitter forced the campaign to delete the post as a “violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation.”
Both companies cited as the offending statement Trump’s claim that children have “much stronger immune systems” than adults and thus “they don’t have a problem” when infected. While oversimplifying, Trump’s claims are not that far removed from those of CDC Director Robert Redfield and infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who have cited the pathogen’s significantly reduced severity in children in their calls to safely reopen schools this fall.
While more measured than the “immunity” claimed by Trump, the gist of his statement -- that COVID-19’s impact on children appears to be less severe than its effect on older Americans -- aligns with the public statements of his medical advisers.
Moreover, when Elon Musk tweeted in March that “kids are essentially immune,” Twitter clarified that his tweet did not violate its COVID-19 rules. To this date, Musk’s tweet carries no warnings or fact-checking statements from Twitter refuting it or adding additional context to his claims. Why is Musk’s assertion permissible but Trump’s is banned? Given that both are imprecise summaries of current scientific knowledge, where does Twitter draw the line?
In many ways, social media platforms have become modern-day incarnations of the Hays Code that governed Hollywood from the 1930s to 1960s, establishing “morality” standards and enforcing them with an army of censors. By shaping popular culture through its control of movies, the Hays Code ensured that generations of Americans were presented an idealized world of benevolent public institutions, including police and politicians whose good works were spotlighted and any wrongdoing was punished. Moreover, as an extrajudicial speech regulation, studios could modify the rules and exempt content at will, much as social platforms do today.
The Hays Code’s influence came from the fact that the studio system was largely centralized, meaning a small number of companies largely controlled what audiences saw. While niche independent studios could set their own rules, the dominance of the major studios ensured the code had an outsized effect over entertainment speech, the same as Twitter and Facebook’s rules are far more influential than those of upstarts like Parler.
Nearly a century later, lawmakers are once again awakening to the power of centralized speech controls by turning to social media companies to impose constraints traditionally prohibited under the First Amendment. Twenty state attorneys general demanded this week that Facebook considerably narrow its speech rules to outlaw anything the government sees as “hate speech.” While the government itself cannot ban most speech, this novel approach suggests it may be legal for the government to instead ask private companies to ban speech it dislikes, nominally complying with the First Amendment by outsourcing the banning process.
Instagram previewed the impact even subtle algorithmic tweaks can have when, over the last few months, searches for Trump on its platform yielded no negative hashtags, while searches for Joe Biden displayed numerous anti-Biden results. While the company claims this was merely a bug that affected other political hashtags as well, it reminds us of the power socials have in shaping the public debate by hiding or emphasizing negative news about political candidates.
As platforms embrace the concept of applying their rules to major news outlets, traditional journalism will no longer act as a bulwark against the power of Silicon Valley. Wikipedia ruled last month that Fox News was no longer a reputable source for political and scientific articles and can now be referenced “only when there are additional sources to corroborate or if it is clearly marked as opinion or biased.” This movement is likely to accelerate if Washington turns its sights on regulating Silicon Valley, with platforms almost certain to ban or suppress news coverage and commentary describing them as monopolies.
With just under three months until the election, Twitter sees nothing wrong with suspending a major presidential campaign’s ability to post. What happens as platforms increasingly embrace their ability to take such steps? Election integrity advisers have for years warned of the dangers of “deep fakes” being released in the days just before an election. While that threat hasn’t materialized yet, we have the very real possibility of social platforms banning a politician the day before an election as a major story breaks, preventing him from responding and undermining public trust in the outcome.
Despite disappearing half a century ago, the impact of the Hays Code is still felt today in the way it shaped Hollywood’s portrayal of institutions like the police. How will we look back half a century from now on the social censorship of today? Will we see it as a momentary experiment that was quickly reversed or will it too shape the course of society for decades?