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Are Social Media Bans A Double-Edged Sword?

A photo illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump on a smartphone and the White House on Jan. 8, 2021.
A photo illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump on a smartphone and the White House on Jan. 8, 2021.

Texas Public Radio's Jerry Clayton recently spoke with social media expert Dr. Samuel Woolley about the aftermath of the President being banned from Twitter and the big tech takedown of right-wing media site Parler.

Clayton: In the aftermath of the president and others being banned from Twitter and the downfall of right wing media site Parler, experts are now speculating about the future of social media. Dr. Samuel Woolley is the project director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.

There are differing opinions on Twitter banning the president of the United States from the platform. Jack Dorsey seemed almost remorseful in some comments he made, saying it could be a dangerous precedent. So what is the downside to big tech silencing certain voices and not others?

Woolley: I think the downside is, is one for both the technology companies, but also for society, not to mention folks like Donald Trump who have been banned. Technology companies themselves are opening themselves up to a large amount of regulation with this move. For a long time, there's been a conversation about the ways in which Twitter, Facebook and YouTube act as platforms of censorship for particular ideas. The fact of the matter is the First Amendment allows them to do this. The First Amendment applies to the government when it comes to free speech, but not to these private companies.

So, Jack Dorsey and Twitter (are) exercising their constitutional right here. But that doesn't mean that there's not going to be serious consequences of regulatory fallout for this. I think politicians are going to want to make some changes to the fact that big companies are the ones making decisions about who can say what and how.

That being said, Twitter and Facebook have been very clear about their particular terms of service and the reasons why they've kicked Donald Trump and others off the platform. And that is because of spreading false information related to the election and also inciting violence. And those two things are very, very clearly against the terms of service of many of these platforms.

Clayton: Parler was taken down in what seemed like a fairly concerted effort by Amazon, Google and Apple. Sites like Parler, and there are many more out there, are refuges for right wing extremists. What is driving these folks to these types of sites?

Woolley: Yeah, many, many people are heading over to Parler or places like Gab to basically hide out kind of private regulation or censorship that they feel is happening on sites like Facebook or Twitter. It also allows them a space to sort of more covertly communicate and organize because there isn't that oversight. Parler in particular has has set itself up as a space where extremists can really organize, communicate and plan, but also where conservatives at large, can get together to have conversations that are maybe not as PC as as the social media companies might like.

Clayton: What kind of problems does it cause when these companies don't moderate their content?

Woolley: Consequences of of not moderating content are that oftentimes protected groups, including protected religious groups like the Jewish community, the Muslim community, Christians in other countries might be attacked, might be threatened. Also, that people with different opinions, political opinions or otherwise might be be similarly targeted. And also that bots which are automated profiles and also sock puppets, which are anonymous fake profiles, can be used to basically create the illusion of popularity for ideas.

If we don't have the companies deleting that kind of content, this fake content, then it can really have the effect of creating a bandwagon sort of approval for for very far out ideas.

Clayton: Seems like you had also mentioned there was a possibility of things like child pornography being spread on these types of sites because of the lack of content moderation. Is that true?

Woolley: People use these kinds of encrypted applications for all sorts of nefarious and scary purposes that are very much against the law. That being said, these same platforms are also used by people in countries with dictators so that they can actually communicate privately without being feared of being thrown in jail, et cetera.

Dr. Samuel Wooley is also an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Journalism and Media. His latest book is "The Reality Game How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth."

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.