China, censorship and Twitter

By Edward Achorn

There are good reasons for Americans to be concerned about the increasing efforts of social media giants to censor or curate political speech.

Along with the First Amendment implications, there is this big concern: These global companies, quite naturally, have financial interests. Those interests do not necessarily coincide with the safety and security of America and its people.

Notably, these corporations have a stake in the massive, expanding market of China. They could conceivably have powerful financial motivations to please that regime.

It has become alarmingly clear that China is the leading geopolitical enemy of the United States. It quite openly seeks world hegemony, by means of weakening and overpowering America. It operates a brutal regime, with technology-assisted repression and concentration camps for religious minorities. It does not share American values of individual liberty, including such human rights as free speech and protection from unwarranted government surveillance.

The coronavirus crisis opened the eyes of many Americans to China’s nature. The regime censored discussion of COVID-19 on its social media and withheld information that arguably could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. It barred domestic flights from Wuhan, where the disease took hold, while permitting international flights from the city, effectively protecting China while seeding the virus around the world, weakening its rivals’ economies and their free institutions.

China uses bribery to advance its interests. It steals technology from American firms. It greatly enhanced its nuclear missile capability after America, in the 1990s, transferred sensitive missile technology to the regime.

Though this has received relatively little attention, U.S. Attorney General William Barr hinted at concerns about China’s role in social media during an Oval Office press conference last Thursday.

The attorney general argued that social media platforms have changed dramatically since Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996. In the decades since, they have radically altered the way Americans consume information — leaving most newspapers, especially, mere husks of their former selves.

“This was adopted 25 years ago to protect a fledgling industry, and its purpose was to allow websites that were serving as, essentially, bulletin boards for diverse third-party content coming on, to say that you’re not responsible for the content of that third-party information.  And it also tried to encourage these companies to take down things like child pornography or human trafficking advertising and things by saying, if you act to remove this kind of objectionable material, you won’t be liable for taking it down,” Mr. Barr said.

“Now it’s been completely stretched to allow what have become really behemoths who control a lot of the flow of information in our society to engage in censorship of that information and to act as editors and publishers of the material.

“So when they put on their own content — like ‘fact check’ content — onto other people’s content, and when they curate their collection, and when they start censoring particular content including, in many cases, at the direction of foreign governments like Communist China, they become publishers and they shouldn’t be entitled to the same kind of shield that was set up earlier.”

I hope the American people learn more about that. It is disturbing that Twitter, in its selective use of “fact-checking,” did not initially question obviously false statements by the communist regime. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao, for example, two months ago accused the U.S. Army of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan. It took public shaming over this hypocrisy before Twitter appended a challenge.

In effect, Twitter, Facebook and You Tube have become giant monopolies disseminating much of the information Americans get. They became giants by promising people that they merely provided a platform for content, and that all political opinions were welcome. Americans have long believed, with good reason, that free speech and diverse viewpoints lead us toward the truth. The idea is that facts and political opinions should not be censored by elites; all Americans may be trusted with information, and may use their free speech to question or challenge elites.

By promoting the speech of some, and suppressing or criticizing that of others, these virtual monopolies have broken their promise. After becoming immensely lucrative and powerful, they seem to be engaging in a classic bait-and-switch. These platforms should either be required to be fair to all or lose their special protections.

The most chilling part of this is that such control of speech could be done to benefit a geopolitical enemy, which obviously would have an interest in influencing American politics and undermining the freedoms that are the strength of our country. Could manipulation of the immensely powerful Google search engine through its secret logarithms, for example, be exploited to dramatically advance the interests of one party over the other?

Let’s face it: Social media giants have come to play an enormous role in American society, particularly in the dissemination of news and information. Protecting the rights of all to freewheeling political speech without manipulation or censorship may be one way to prevent enemy states from coercing and misusing these platforms.

I never want China to censor or manipulate what an American president may say on Twitter, Facebook or You Tube to the American people, particularly those presidents who are determined to frustrate China’s evil ambitions.

This is not just about the Twitter effusions of Donald Trump.

(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

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