By Forrest Hershberger
View From The Handlebars 

The Two Sides of Free Speech


October 21, 2020

In the early 2000s, there was a program that allowed people to connect. It was fun. It was new. It was treated as playful and cutting edge.

It predated the platforms most of us use today.

About the same time, Facebook was developed at Harvard University by then college student Mark Zuckerberg. What started as likely a dorm-room geek project has become a global phenomenon beyond definition.

What has also happened is the electronic communication world has equally exploded without definition. Is it print? Is it broadcast? What does it mean to be a communication platform, a billboard? For those whose “Tech Degree” is more advanced than mine, yes, I am simplifying the discussion.. for a reason.

Moving ahead 17 years, platforms like Facebook and Twitter were grilled by Congress on issues from monopoly to how well it monitors the truthfulness and accuracy of stories and ads placed on the programs. The stated concern is inaccurate posts could be misleading voters and swaying opinions. It was a shirt tale issue to the accusation of Russian influence on US elections.

I recall Zuckerberg being questioned, no, grilled, on his responsibility to ensure posts on Facebook were accurate. It concerned me then as I watched. I wondered when it became the responsibility of a platform designer and owner that all of the users are people of integrity.

The apparent result is that now social media platforms, not just Facebook, blocks or otherwise deletes comments and posts they deem inaccurate or not conducive to their standard. The questions didn’t always separate fact from fiction. The implied concern was what content on published in the public forum impacts the election. To a point, I understand. In some offices, it is more about information management than disclosure. It then becomes a chess game where Candidate A might be waiting until there is no chance for a rebuttal to make public dirt on Candidate B. Checkmate: egg on your face and not a towel in sight.

However, the ability to edit someone’s opinion or advertising has gone from fact-checking to steering public opinion. It is the proverbial beast forced out of its cage and now without an answer how to get it back in. The practice of blocking or deleting information that does not fit into a certain agenda (“Community values” in one such platform) has led to protests of censorship. It seems like the public should be able to make its own decision if given enough information.

The rest of that concept is linked back to what are the information managers doing with what they know, and what do you do when the platform, at the urging of Congress, oversees every pen stroke on the page? What do you do when “Facebook jail” is almost trendy?

When it is almost a badge of honor to be scolded by the political correctness police, there is a problem. The question, then, is if the editing of society is wrong, or the internal values of people as a whole are wrong.

Regardless, Freedom of Speech does still ring. Then again, Congressional members were pretty clear to say otherwise when at least one asked Zuckerberg if it is his responsibility to ensure the content is truthful. Freedom of Speech isn’t always about being truthful, in the public domain. It is about acknowledging the right to speak is as guaranteed for the one making a fool of himself as for the man saving the world.

In our current situation, news sources have promoted a story that is linked to former Vice-President Joe Biden. The links to these accounts are being removed or blocked, which leads to the question why. If these platforms are compared to unique news sources, they need to accept allowing news they may not be comfortable with. If they are just a channel of communication, Congress and the owners of the platforms need to keep their editing to verbal assaults on people, not removal of valid news articles and opinions.


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