The White House on Thursday will host a meeting of some of the rightwing internet’s loudest voices – and worst trolls.
Donald Trump’s so-called “Social Media Summit” was announced in late June amid unsubstantiated but persistent allegations by the president that major social media platforms are biased against members of the Republican party. While the administration has released few details about the meeting, the list of self-identified invitees suggests that the event will largely serve as a platform for rightwing conspiracy theorists, bigots and the professionally aggrieved.
The relentless campaign by Republicans to attribute every content moderation decision to partisan bias has poisoned the well for an actual and much needed discussion of social media censorship. The role that a handful of social media companies should play in policing the boundaries of acceptable speech is a vital and urgent debate; decisions made in Silicon Valley reverberate in societies around the world, with outcomes ranging from the inspirational and emancipatory to the inflammatory and genocidal.
A meeting of the minds between Bill Mitchell, a Twitter celebrity known for promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, and @CarpeDonktum, a Twitter celebrity known for making fawning memes about the president, will not produce any such useful debate. Here’s an alternate invite list for a social media censorship summit that might actually be worth having:
Nick Ut and Kim Phúc
In September 2016 Facebook censored Nick Ut’s iconic “napalm girl” photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phúc because it violated the company’s ban on naked images of children. Amid international outcry, and after going so far as to delete a post of the photograph by the prime minister of Norway, Facebook eventually reversed course, acknowledging that the photograph had value due to its “historical importance”. But the controversy was an important inflection point for the public’s understanding of Facebook ‘s power. It provided a chance to consider what it would have meant if Facebook had existed in 1972 and had dictated whether or not an image with the chance to change the course of history would ever be seen – and what images might never gain historical importance because of Facebook’s dominance.
Mass shooting survivors
One of the nightmarish realities of American society is that the survivors of gun massacres are often victimized twice: first by the shooter and next by the legions of gun-rights activists and conspiracy theorists who reliably launch campaigns of harassment and abuse accusing survivors of being “crisis actors”. Social media platforms have played a key role in facilitating such bullying and abuse; YouTube has repeatedly recommended videos spreading lies about survivors in the aftermath of shootings, and harassers often use Facebook to find and then bully victims. Some targets are forced to close their accounts to stop the torrent of threats and abuse – at the very moment that they need support from family and friends.
Those who have been affected don’t all agree on the best approach to dealing with conspiratorial content, which may not violate a platform’s rules but can still have terrible consequences. Leonard Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa, the parents of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, have argued that Facebook should ban attacks on victims of mass shootings and other tragedies. But Cori Langdon, a taxi driver who was hailed as a hero for picking up survivors of the Las Vegas shooting before becoming the target of a harassment campaign, told the Guardian that when Facebook and YouTube took down some of the video that was being used to attack her, the censorship “just fuel[ed] them even more”.
Museum curators, gallerists and contemporary artists
Facebook’s ban on full nudity and female nipples has long garnered derision for its ham-fisted censorship of old masters, from nudes by Rubens to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), the censorship of which touched off a years-long legal battle. But while Rubens’ reputation will endure with or without social media, today’s artists are increasingly reliant on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook and follows the same rules) to build an audience and advertise their works. The site’s strictures on nudity thus have real consequences for their work and livelihoods, creating strong incentives for artists to stop depicting the human body in certain ways. The censorship extends to museums and galleries, which rely on Instagram to draw visitors to exhibits. Canadian artist Kit King, who largely sells her work through Instagram, recently told the Art Newspaper that repeated censorship on the platform has made her question whether she should even “remain an artist in the age of social media censorship”.
Burmese civil society groups
The people of Myanmar, and especially the persecuted minority the Rohingya, have likely been the greatest victims of Facebook’s failures as a responsible censor. The company for years failed to crack down on political and religious figures who were using its platform to foment hate and eventual genocidal violence against the minority. Civil society groups who had begged Facebook to listen to local experts and be more proactive about censoring incitement to violence were then shocked this February when Facebook banned posts by four ethnic armies engaged in a decades-long struggles for self determination against Myanmar’s army. Many local experts said the decision was inconsistent with international law and could have serious repercussions for civilians who relied on the ethnic armies’s Facebook pages for information.
War crimes prosecutors
The major social media platforms have long been committed to removing propaganda and recruitment materials by Islamic terrorist groups, and the companies have in recent months begun to take action against other extremist ideologies, including white nationalism and Nazism. But the line between documentation of a hateful organization’s activities and promotion of its ideas is exceedingly difficult to define, and social media platforms have run into a number of quandaries over this. In 2017, for example, YouTube removed of thousands of videos that were intended to document war crimes in Syria, prompting concerns that the desire to prevent terrorist groups from spreading their message might be inadvertently responsible for destroying the evidence that could theoretically be used to hold some of them to account. And in June, when YouTube updated its policies to ban “supremacist” ideologies, a journalist who documents the far-right and some history teachers who had uploaded an archival footage of Adolf Hitler were targeted by YouTube’s censors.