Ravelry, an online knitting community that has more than8 million members, last month announced that it would ban forum posts,projects, patterns and even profiles from users who supported PresidentTrump or his administration.
“We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allowsupport for open white supremacy,” the administrators of Ravelryposted on the site on June 23.
“Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for whitesupremacy,” the post added.
The administrators have maintained that they aren’t endorsingDemocrats or banning Republicans. Users who do support theadministration have been told they can still participate — they just can’t voice their support on Ravelry.
Ravelry’s move was met with both an outpouringof support from those who opposed the administration’s policies and condemnation from those who support the president.
Ravelry is not the first online community to issue such an ultimatumto users. The roleplaying game portal RPGnet last fall issued adecree that support for President Trump would be banned on its forums.
“Support for elected hate groups aren’t welcome here,” theadministrators posted. “We can’t save the world, but we can protectand care for the small patch that is this board.”
Is It Censorship?
The banning of conservative groups hasn’t been limited to Ravelry orRPGnet. Facebook last fall announced that it hadpurged more than 800 U.S. accounts that it identified as flooding users with politically oriented spam.
However, some conservatives — including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — have argued that Facebook has unfairly targeted those expressing conservative opinions. Cruz this spring raised his concerns with representatives from Facebook and Twitter during the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution’s hearing, “Stifling Free Speech:Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse.”
The threat of political censorship could be problematic due to thelack of transparency Cruz noted during the April hearing.
“If Big Tech wants to be partisan political speakers it has thatright,” he said, “but it has no entitlement to a special immunityfrom liability under Section 230 that The New York Times doesn’t enjoy, that The Washington Post doesn’t enjoy — that nobody else enjoys other than Big Tech.”
Understanding Section 230
Much of the debate revolves around Section 230 of the CommunicationsDecency Act of 1996, the common name for Title V of theTelecommunications Act of 1996. As part of a landmark piece ofInternet legislation in the United States, it provides immunity fromliability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service”that publishes information provided by third-party users.
The law basically says that those who host or republish speech are notlegally responsible for what others say and do. That includes not onlyInternet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or Verizon, but alsoany services that publish third-party content, which would includethe likes of Facebook and Ravelry.
One of Section 230’s authors, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., hascountered that the law was intended to make sure that companies could moderate their respective websites without fear of lawsuits.
Striking a Balance
The divide online is of course just a mirror of the deep politicaldivide in the U.S., and it is unlikely that legal wordingwill do much to heal it. Battle lines have been drawn, and both sidescontinue to dig in. The question is whether banning those withdiffering opinions actually helps or hurts matters.
There is an argument that this is simply defusing controversy andsilencing the most extreme voices.
“It was once shared with me that intolerance of intolerance isintolerance,” said Nathaniel Ivers, associate professor andchairman of the department of counseling at Wake Forest University.
“We often think of intolerance as an inherently negative thing;however, there are instances in which communities, groups andorganizations are justified in establishing zero tolerance clauses forcertain behaviors and ideologies,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“The challenge, however, is that these clauses are innately rigid andmay at times exclude ideas, attitudes and behaviors that arebenign,” Ivers added.
Then there is the concern of whether this is an issue of censorship. However, those who understand media law know that in the legal sense, censorship applies to the government and media. Private companies actually are within their rights to determine what is appropriate for their audiences.
“Does Ravelry have the right to censor?” pondered social mediaconsultant Lon Safko.
“Sure they do. It’s their site, and they can do anything they wantshort of child pornography,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Facebook’s and Ravelry’s decisions to ban some content have been basedon what each views as “extremist” in nature. This may reflect the deep divide in the nation, but is the action inappropriate?
“Generally speaking, social media companies — like other companies –have significant leeway in running their business in the manner oftheir choosing, as long as they do not violate applicable laws,” saidRobert Foehl, executive in residence for the business law and ethicsdepartment at the Ohio University Online Master of BusinessAdministration program.
“When making all kinds of business decisions, companies areincreasingly considering the impacts, both positive and negative, onthe various stakeholders of the company –owners/investors/shareholders, for sure, but also other importantstakeholders, such as customers, employees, and communities/society,”he told TechNewsWorld.
This is why Facebook last year began following the lead of eBay andother online sites that have banned the sale of items of aquestionable nature. Among them are items of the Third Reich. While some legitimate collectors who see the historical value in such items havevoiced concern, Facebook’s decision was based in part on how they could be linked to extremist groups.
“Social media companies have long maintained content policies thatgovern what is deemed acceptable content for their product and userscan freely choose whether they want to agree with those policies anduse the product, or disagree and not become a customer of thecompany,” Foehl suggested.
“This trend signals a tipping point in the Internet’s 30-year history,and in particular the data ecosystem it has brought forth with itsgrowing encroachment into people’s private lives,” added Chris Olson,CEO of The Media Trust.
“There is a fine line between hate speech and the right to freespeech,” Olson told TechNewsWorld. “As with all rights, there comes responsibility — like theresponsibility not to ruin people’s lives nor start a riot.”
A greater concern than whether personal opinions — even those that somemay find distasteful — are being silenced is what this means for thepolitical debate. Is one side, notably the conservative voice, beingcut out of the debate?
“Over the last few years, concerns about freedom of speech,censorship, and social media’s role in political communication havecome to the forefront,” noted Ohio University’s Foehl.
“Given the pervasiveness and importance of social media platforms as ameans of communication and connection in today’s societies, theseconcerns are timely and legitimate,” he added.
It is important not to inadvertently conflate issues, Foehl noted.
“It is important to remember that the constitutional right to freedomof speech in the United States protects against inappropriaterestrictions on speech by state actors — in essence, the governmentand related institutions,” he explained. “So, citizens are free toexpress ideas through speech in the town square without governmentalinterference. In the United States, social media companies are notstate actors; thus the freedom of speech protections afforded by theConstitution do not apply to speech contained in their platforms.”
The Ethics Question
One question then is whether Facebook or other social mediacompanies — as well as firms like Ravelry and RPG.net — actually haveacted unethically. That could depend in large part on their intentionsin disallowing certain content.
“If the intent is to remove content that could reasonably be seen tocause harm to, or if the content does not respect the dignity orautonomy of, individuals or a group of people, then it is very likelythat the company acted ethically when removing the content,” saidFoehl.
“On the other hand, if content was removed in order to attempt toimpose the ideology of the company’s executives, political orotherwise, on others, then the content removal would be ethicallysuspect,” he added.
“Of course, this is the rub — those whose content has been removedmany times feel it is because of ideological conflicts with thecontent decision makers; and President Trump has been especially vocalabout his view that political bias is the basis for many contentdecisions,” Foehl noted.
However, social media companies may not have overstepped anyexisting authority, given their role in society today.
“Companies are not state actors, and they have the authority to developtheir products as they see fit, as long as they comply with applicablelaws,” emphasized Foehl.
“The development, implementation, andenforcement of clearly communicated content guidelines are a [requirement]of customer trust. Customers have the autonomy to decide whether theywant to do business with the company,” he added.
Equal Time and Fairness
Some conservatives could argue that they are being shut out of thedialogue online, but there are precedents to consider. The first is theequal time rule, which is specific to elections. It requires that U.S. radio andtelevision broadcast stations must provide an equivalent opportunityto any opposing political candidates who request it.
However, that applies to elections and to the broadcastmedium, so those who suggest that Ravelry’s ban is a violationmisunderstand the law.
The other law is the FCC’s fairness doctrine, a policy introduced in1949 that requires the holders of broadcast licenses to present bothsides of controversial issues. The FCC eliminated the policy in 1987 –and that move may have been instrumental in leading to the proliferation of conservativetalk radio.
As the Internet is now maturing, this issue may need to be reconsidered.
“The government, industry and Internet public will have to agree to aset of standards — all of which are still being hammered out andtried,” said The Media Trust’s Olson.
“This industry attempt is merely the result of a larger set ofproblems, like pointing fingers at outdated laws and regulations,social media platforms, or people’s uncontrolled impulses,” he added.
“The solution lies in everyone working together in crafting bettergovernance policies that can be applied as a minimum around theworld,” said Olson. “With technology outpacing laws and norms, thepath forward is a rocky one until the base standards are hammeredout.”
Consequences of the Discourse
In the end this banning of conservatives — whether forlegitimate concerns or petty grievances — could fracture communities and ultimately be bad for business.
“Censorship is bad for Ravelry’s business,” said Safko. “If they don’t allow pro-Trump, then as a business site, they should not allow anti-Trump or any political postings.”
Failure to do so could result in legislation and strict rules –something that isn’t good for a free and open discussion of issues andcivil debate.
“A potential issue with rigid laws, policies, or regulations, is thatthey can, over time, create a very homogeneous community,” said WakeForest University’s Ivers.
“In such communities, people may, for a time, feel more comfortable;however, these groups also may become fertile ground for stereotypesand xenophobia,” he warned.
“It is important to clarify that the social media sites like Ravelryand RPGnet that have banned content related specifically to PresidentTrump have made the decision that he is inextricably linked to hatespeech — speech that attacks a person or group based on protectedcharacteristics such as race, religion, disability and sexualorientation,” explained Foehl.
“They have not banned content based on where such content falls on thepolitical spectrum,” he added.
As a result, social media companies find themselves in a very difficultsituation when it comes to removing content.
“This situation is exacerbated by social media’s prevalence andimportance in the exchange of ideas in the modern world,” saidFoehl.
“The decision to remove content should not be taken lightly and mustpass ethical scrutiny,” he added. “Employing a sound and formalgovernance structure that allows content removal decisions to be madequickly — but not hastily — and independently [from companyexecutives] is advisable. The criteria for content removal should bedeveloped with a mind toward ensuring doing no harm and treatingothers with respect and dignity, while allowing for the exercise ofpersonal autonomy.”