Social media companies must moderate content, and fairly
FOR long social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have shrugged off their responsibility for moderation of the posts. They say they are publishing platforms where anybody is free to post his or her view or comment. There lies the irony. Any media company is a publishing platform, whether it is print, electronic or digital. But the publisher is also responsible for the content he or she publishes. The publishers are sued when they publish content that is alleged to be defamatory, provocative or fomenting religious or racial disharmony or violence. The media companies, other than social media companies, have reporting and editorial staff whose primary responsibility is to keep out content that is defamatory, provocative or fomenting religious or racial disharmony or violence. However the social media companies do not even have staff to moderate the content. After they faced a lot of criticism they hired some staff to moderate the content. But considering the oceans of content that flow into their platforms daily, their moderators’ number is very small.
The social media companies cannot have best of both the worlds. They cannot be publishers only to earn revenue from advertisements without caring for the content they are publishing. One of the reasons why these companies have resisted placing a strict and quick moderation mechanism in place is their interest in earning from advertisements without any responsibility. A large percentage of posts on social media are abusive, derogatory, provocative and nonsensical. Millions of those who post comments on social media have the advantage of doing it anonymously, using pseudonyms for cover. The social media is littered with such abusive, derogatory and provocative comments. These are the types of comments that the print media or electronic media or even responsible digital media companies would not publish. But social media companies publish them because for them the ballooning number of users is important for generating ballooning revenue.
The social media companies let such obnoxious and dangerous comments be published on the plea that they cannot curtail free speech. Now, the world over, in all democracies, free speech is not absolutely free. It comes with restraint. In India, the Constitution guarantees free speech but with reasonable restraint. It is this ‘reasonable restraint’ that is the concern of all publishers other than social media companies. Facebook and Twitter cannot wash their hands off defamatory and inflammatory posts on their platforms. As much as they have a right to allow free speech to be aired through their platforms, they have a duty to put reasonable restraint upon free speech. Free speech cannot be speech that incites violence, promotes medievalism and triggers enmity between races and followers of different religions. Free speech cannot be speech that does not reason with the critic but smears him or her with a pejorative or hurls dirty epithets at them.
True, there are extraordinary occasions when the social media companies are forced to act. The extraordinary occasions are those when a government or the overwhelming public opinion disapproves of certain hashtags or accounts or posts. When the US Capitol was attacked by the supporters of former US president Donald Trump, Facebook and Twitter first suspended the accounts of Trump and then removed them permanently. Facebook and Twitter said they did it in order to prevent Trump from inciting more violence on the US Capitol with his incessant messaging making false claims that elections were rigged. However, the truth was Facebook and Twitter had not dared to remove Trump as long as he was president. Trump had achieved a kind of notoriety for posting incendiary messages on Facebook and Twitter throughout his tenure. But they removed his account only after he lost and they faced tremendous pressure from the Democratic surge.
Facebook and Twitter have shown an identical trait in their character: they buckle down under political pressure. They have been known to remove accounts, hashtags and posts when they have been asked to do so by governments. They have not stopped there. They also do not remove accounts, hashtags or posts that can foment violence and hatred against particular communities and individuals in order to please those governments.