Tweets in the Time of Terror: U.S. Candidates Take Aim At Free Speech

It’s beyond troubling when, as a U.S. presidential candidate, your first instinct is censorship

Digital rights activists Matthew Stender and Jillian C. York examine the implications of recent comments by U.S. presidential candidates

Photo by Cory Doctorow (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Despite their polar political philosophies and personal narratives, something remarkable happened this week demonstrating just how unsettlingly similar the Orwellian tendencies of the two of the leading presidential candidates are: Both Ben Carson and Hillary Clinton, within a span of 24 hours, went on the record as saying that a necessary action in defeating ISIS is for social media platforms — on which much of our everyday speech takes place — to shut down speech. Free speech stands at the core of the American ethos, but it seems two of the country’s leading presidential candidates are all too willing — even eager — to limit that core civil liberty.

Polling high in their respective primaries are two individuals who stand in seemingly stark contrast: retired neurosurgeon and best-selling author Ben Carson, who has garnered superlatives from conservative pundits because of his seemingly tempered statements, is at or near the top in GOP polls, while former New York Senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is running for the Democratic ticket on a platform of being an experienced public servant and international stateswoman. Despite very different biographies, the recent statements by both candidates is cause for alarm.

“We must not allow [ISIS’] macabre murder videos and threats to be promoted anywhere,” said Carson, referencing the hacker group Anonymous as an inspiration for his policy. Clinton’s statement suggested the potential for censorship beyond the speech of terrorists: “There is no doubt we have to do a better job contesting online space, including websites and chat rooms where jihadists communicate with followers,” she said. In an Washington Post op/ed, Carson proposes an increase in government technical surveillance. “We can monitor social media by expanding the search algorithms already in place to safeguard against inappropriate behavior, including religious hate speech,” he writes. “Once flagged, we can notify platform providers and encourage them to censor communications (and block users) that violate the terms of constructive discourse.”

While the First Amendment protects the right to free expression without state interference, the corporations that control popular social media platforms are also, legally, afforded free speech rights, which allow them to exercise discretion in what they host, while also protecting them from liability in most instances. As such, companies like Facebook and Twitter already employ strict policies that lay out in clear terms the types of speech that are not permitted, including violent threats, hate speech and support for terrorism.

If it were the New York Times, that these candidates were suggesting be limited in what they could publish, there would be public outcry. Instead, we’ve seen social media platforms be increasingly asked to “do more” about terrorism, ignoring the fact that these social media companies already have processes in place to deal with government orders, and law enforcement requests. Alas, the distinction between social media and traditional news sources is not arbitrary; to highlight the profound role that social media has on daily life, one must look no further than a recent Pew study that found that more than three out of five users of both Facebook and Twitter used their social feeds to get news.

Carson and Clinton should be called upon to answer how their piecemeal and reactionary policy positions — vis-à-vis online censorship — do not violate the spirit of the the First Amendment, which specifically prohibits “abridging the freedom of speech.” Creating a special class of self-policing corporation, especially one that is at the heart of our daily exchange of information, sets a most dangerous precedent: that the reaction to any tragedy should be the state asserting its power to impact the operational capacity of companies that facilitate a diverse world view.

In response to the Paris attacks, two of the leading contenders for the presidency have come forward with anemic pragmatic proposals that do little to take into account US foreign policy. What they have instead done is to say that they would aggressively target private corporations which at their core are conduits, or intermediaries, of the free flow of information around the world, and by doing so, have both shown their true colors: To err not on the side of freedom, but on the side of repression.

The act of asking Facebook or Twitter to somehow go above and beyond the two companies’ terms of service should show the American electorate that our leading presidential candidates hold a worldview that is antithetical to the Constitution and these proposals are a direct threat to the free flow of information that is at the core of not only an informed electorate, but democracy itself.

The question that is core to this debate is: In a democracy, should governments be able to censor speech by proxy, circumventing the existing legal protections for free expression? This debate is not about the law, which is clear; this debate is about who should decide what is acceptable speech, and who should have the power to restrict that which is deemed unacceptable.

Advocating for privately-enforced domestic censorship in response to foreign attacks shows a fundamental proclivity for using external events to limit the freedoms of American citizens. One shudders to think of what response these candidates would advocate in the case of a terror attack on the American homeland. Any serious presidential candidate needs to show the American people how they would address the root causes of terrorism — not violate the integrity of the civil liberties of its own citizens. The American electorate must demand their candidates offer a thorough explanation for any attempt to compromise the free exchange of ideas that social media affords us just because it’s a low-hanging fruit.

The principles espoused by the Islamic State sit squarely at odds with the principles of democracy. We condemn the organization’s monopolization of ideas to which those living under their anachronistic reign are subjected. Although the latest comments by Clinton and Carson may be mere political posturing, and formulated in a way that is more digestible to Americans, they are the first steps down a slippery slope of eroded civil liberties. The American public should recognize that the knee-jerk reaction to limit free expression on social media is a dangerous response to tragedy. Both presidential frontrunners have shown that instead of addressing the structural roots of terrorism, they would rather tighten the control of information and speech.

American politics can be raucous, and are especially so during contested presidential primary seasons, with candidates from both parties seeking to engage in a perpetual stream of one-upmanship and a verbal bellicosity that could potentially separate them from their rivals. But one thing is clear: there are two potential responses after a tragedy like that which occurred in Paris last week. The first, which France took this week when its parliament voted for new power to block websites, is to restrict the rights of the people. The second is to acknowledge the risks faced and conduct due diligence to mitigate them without creating a climate of chilling effects. In doing so, we give the people who seek to do us harm exactly what they want: a system in which only one point of view is allowed.

Matthew Stender is a digital rights advocate, anti-censorship activist and communication strategist based in the Middle East. He is Project Strategist for Twitter: @StenderWorld

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work lies at the intersection of technology and policy. Views in this post are her own.Twitter: @JillianCYork