Is Social Media Really A Public Space?

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As the private curated walled gardens of social media have increasingly replaced the democratic free-for-all public space of the web’s origins, powerful new questions are arising as to how those private spaces will redefine freedom of speech and the right to communicate with elected officials in our modern world. Most recently, a group of Twitter users who had been blocked by President Trump on the platform filed a lawsuit arguing that the President’s use of Twitter for official government communications has transformed the private company’s platform into a public space with all the relevant protections afforded by such environments. What do these developments portend for the future of our communicative spaces?

As elected officials turn to social media to communicate with their constituents and social platforms themselves deploy new features to help connect citizens with their representatives, the interaction between the governed and those they elect to govern them is increasingly occurring on private digital property with membership rules and codes of conduct not subject to any of the protections traditionally afforded the public sphere.

In one recent court case a federal judge did rule that traditional First Amendment protections applied to politicians conducting official government business via Facebook and that a Virginia politician could not block users simply for posting material they did not like on their page. Yet, just how far do those protections extend?

Perhaps most importantly, the bulk of the discussion to date has focused on the actions of politicians themselves while ignoring the far greater question of how the platforms themselves and their opaque moderation guidelines and membership requirements could powerfully shape the political discourse of the future. If the courts rule that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms are by definition “public spaces” where politicians are prohibited from blocking or impeding their constituents from expressing their opinions, what are the rights of the companies themselves to block or impede certain messages? If it is illegal for a politician to block a user who posts critical commentary about them, could they instead get the platforms themselves to do it for them by reporting the user through the social platform’s harassment mechanism?

What happens if a social platform permanently bans a user? If social platforms are defined by the courts to be public spaces when it comes to political discourse, could the companies find themselves under judicial order to reinstate all banned users so that they can communicate with elected officials on the platform? In addition, what happens when platforms and advertisers can monetize our interactions with our leaders, transforming the public space into a private money machine?

 

Moreover, what happens when citizens express viewpoints or communicate concerns to their elected officials that involve sensitive topics or language? Such posts often run up against social platforms' opaque and secretive moderation guidelines and can be removed without notice or appeal. Reflecting the increasing unease around these policies, the Washington Post noted recently that “In January, a coalition of more than 70 civil rights groups wrote a letter urging Facebook to fix its ‘racially-biased’ content moderation system. The groups asked Facebook to enable an appeals process, offer explanations for why posts are taken down, and publish data on the types of posts that get taken down and restored. Facebook has not done these things.” Citing this lack of data, the Post noted “The company acknowledged that minorities feel disproportionately targeted but said it could not verify those claims because it does not categorize the types of hate speech that appear or tally which groups are targeted.”

Ordinary citizens aren’t the only ones affected by these moderation policies. Last year Facebook deleted an official government post by the sitting head of state of a nation after deeming it in violation of its policies and in the general case affords no special protections or exemptions to politicians or journalists.

When asked last year if the company would go on the record as affirming that it would never systematically block certain classes of people from Facebook, such as prohibiting women from certain countries or nationalities from participating in discussions, the company did not offer comment. It also did not respond to a request for comment as to why it does not provide additional detail when deleting a post, offer a stronger appeals process or make publicly available detailed statistics on the kinds of posts it deletes or the policies themselves.

As social platforms ramp up their efforts to combat “fake news” such efforts may also come into conflict with constituent concerns and their ability to communicate those issues to their elected officials. Take a disputed police shooting in which the official government account is very different from what activists claim took place. If activists’ concerns are dismissed as “fake news” and automatically blocked from being shared further, it could prevent them from being able to raise awareness and communicate the scale of the problem to elected leaders to enact change.

Putting this all together, perhaps the most critical First Amendment questions around political speech in the digital era revolve not around the actions of politicians themselves, but rather the future actions of social media platforms as they increasingly mediate the communication between the governed and those that govern them and, through their role as ultimate gatekeeper, increasingly act as final arbitrator of what citizens may say to their governments.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2017/08/01/is-social-media-really-a-public-space/2/#7ff571a55ae4