“At Liberty” Podcast: What Does Free Speech Mean Online?

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Photo By Sammy Muñoz

Janice Luong

Staff Writer

Just days before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the controversy behind former President Donald Trump’s censorship on Twitter sparked a debate about what free speech is and the power that social media companies have over users. In this episode, host Molly Kaplan speaks with Kate Ruane in “What Does Free Speech Mean Online?” about the justifiable means of censoring Trump and the private sector of major social media companies.

The episode begins with Ruane’s statement: 

“We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield that unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.” 

The focus is on the constitutionality and transparency of content moderation for large media companies. Content moderation policies are murky, and it is difficult to gauge the premises on which something should be banned or not. Ruane makes the point that marginalized groups are often censored from sharing personal experiences of racism and white supremacy, whereas Trump has accessible networks and platforms where he can spew the same rhetoric that got him banned from Twitter and onto another platform. There is this “imbalance” of these big platforms where certain users are susceptible to being censored more than others and that is something the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been skeptical about for a long time. 

“The ACLU criticizes big media companies on how they often incorrectly practice censorship, how there’s no clear due process, and how the rules are not as transparent nor transparently applied.”

Although Trump’s ban was justifiable, the interrogation shouldn’t stop. For the past four years, Trump has been using the same rhetoric that eventually got him banned. So the question now is, why after all that time? Should they have done it sooner? They further contextualize the impact of Trump’s words and how they caused harm to society as a whole, but the answer is unclear. The ACLU criticizes big media companies on how they often incorrectly practice censorship, how there’s no clear due process, and how the rules are not as transparent nor transparently applied. 

The First Amendment is the protection of expression from the government, that censorship from the government would be unconstitutional. However, this is not as clear-cut when it challenges instances of private companies where it seems like they do not have the right to refuse service. Major media companies are responsible for billions of voices, so when they have unregulated power to censor and non-transparent disclosure, it becomes a question of constitutionality. 

Ruane also makes a crucial point that social media algorithms make the decision for users of what they see, and the heads of these companies are uniformly white, wealthy men. She mentions the implicit bias implemented in those algorithms and that inherently results in people of color being censored more on the internet. These debates and conversations are never-ending because there’s a lack of transparency deep within the operations of big media corporations. 

This podcast is food for your brain and allows you to question what may seem just at first. Kaplan and Ruane do a great job in developing and exploring deeper questions, while making it entertaining. ACLU does a great job analyzing media censorship and the points they made led me to question and rethink my initial perspective on what I already know. This episode was enjoyable because I learned how to look beyond the situation and think more thoughtfully. Especially during Trump’s presidency, people were susceptible to forming strong opinions and falling into a more extremist view. This podcast allowed me to reshape and properly analyze the conditions because this is about more than Trump — it’s about overlooking unregulated power that social media has over people.  

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