The architects of Silicon Valley’s big social media platforms never imagined they’d someday be the global speech police. And yet, as their market share and global user bases have increased over the years, that’s exactly what they’ve become. Today, the number of people who tweet is nearly the population of the United States. About a quarter of the internet’s total users watch YouTube videos, and nearly one-third of the entire world uses Facebook. Regardless of the intent of their founders, none of these platforms were ever merely a means of connecting people; from their early days, they fulfilled greater needs. They are the newspaper, the marketplace, the television. They are the billboard, the community newsletter, and the town square.
And yet, they are corporations, with their own speech rights and ability to set the rules as they like—rules that more often than not reflect the beliefs, however misguided, of their founders. Mark Zuckerberg has long professed beliefs that representing oneself through more than one identity indicates a lack of integrity, and that conversations held under one’s real name are more civil—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, Facebook users are forced to use their “authentic identity”—a name found on some form of written ID—regardless of whether it puts them in danger, or at risk of exposing a piece of themselves that could put them in harm’s way. It prevents youth from exploring their sexuality freely for fear of being outed; people with chronic illnesses from engaging with support groups out of concern that insurance companies or employers might learn of their plight; and activists living under repressive regimes from organizing online.
In some instances, it is a combination of personal beliefs and other factors that leads to seemingly arbitrary policies. On Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, men may appear shirtless, but women’s nipples are considered pornographic. This is in part a reflection of U.S. societal norms and traditions, but these companies could have chosen a different path, one reflected in their founders’ supposed belief in freedom of expression. They could have recognized that their global user base might have different views about women’s bodies. But instead they chose to stick with the patriarchal norm, and other companies followed.
In their early days of the social internet, these companies grappled with their newfound responsibilities by consulting with academics, non-profits, and think tanks—particularly those with a civil liberties bent—about difficult policy decisions. When the nascent Syrian uprising turned into a civil war in 2012, YouTube talked frankly with NGOs in an effort to find a policy solution that would allow videos containing graphic violence to remain online; in the end, the company agreed that as long as the videos were captioned with sufficient context, they could stay. Contrast that to today: Groups such as Syrian Archive that are trying to archive and preserve videos emerging from Syria for use as evidence are engaged in battle with YouTube, as the evidence keeps disappearing.
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