You’re right, it is tricky, and I’m not sure I have a wholly satisfying or consistent response. I don’t agree that an online platform is a prerequisite for freedom of speech, even in an online age. I think freedom of speech should be interpreted as the right to not be persecuted by the state for opinions expressed in private or in public, but I see no reason why that should be extended to a right to say anything on private platforms like Twitter or Facebook. Although digital media is new, the issue of control isn’t. Members of the public have written letters to newspapers for centuries, but they won’t get published if the views contained within conflict with the agenda of the editor or owner. Does this mean we didn’t have freedom of speech until Twitter?
I think it’s perhaps a moot point anyway as there are platforms for everything now; it’s just a matter of scale. If Twitter ever decides to stop enabling fascists, they can always find an audience — albeit a smaller one — on platforms like the Daily Stormer. I don’t advocate banning these platforms, even if I do find them abhorrent.
I think my main problem is with the pernicious issue of false balance and neutrality in the mainstream media. When the BBC gives equal prominence and weight to climate change deniers as they do to climate change scientists, in the name of balance, they are tacitly supporting the deniers. When Facebook claims not to be a media company and refuses to accept the need for any oversight of the media shared on its platform, it enables fake news to flourish. When CNN reports on Trump’s lies but fails to challenge them, it legitimises them. I’d like these platforms to stop pretending that they are impartial conduits that merely serve to neutrally reflect reality. They’re amplifiers, helping to shape views and create reality, and it strikes me as profoundly dangerous that they appear to be blind to this.
To claim to be politically neutral is to evince tacit support for the status quo. I’d like these platforms to recognise the limits of balance, and the impossibility of neutrality. An abdication of editorial judgment is in itself an editorial judgment. If, having accepted this, a platform still thinks it right to publish the kind of material we’re talking about, then at least it will have done so in a considered manner. Platforms should expose themselves to accountability for the material they publish, letting their users/viewers decide whether their values align or not, rather than mendaciously professing to have no values or agenda in order to escape censure.
That’s idealistic, I realise, and I have no idea how to get to that point. But I thank you for the thought provoking questions!