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The New Thought Police? Facebook’s Evicted Seven And The Future of Free Speech

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 7, 2019

Every major news event has a shadow—and sometimes the real story is hiding in the shadow. It is elusive, it is hidden, but it must be brought to the light in order to fully understand the consequences of any newsworthy development.

A story that demands that kind of closer look came with an announcement last week from Facebook. The social media giant announced that it had banned seven people from using its platform. The New York Times reported, “After years of wavering about how to handle the extreme voices populating its platform, Facebook on Thursday evicted seven of its most controversial users, many of whom are conservatives, immediately inflaming the debate about the power and accountability of large technology companies.”

Facebook described the evicted users as purveyors of hate whose words had incendiary consequences that potentially could cause violence.

Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars were the two most notorious users barred from Facebook. Brett Stevens wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times where he said, “The issue isn’t whether the people in question deserve censure. They do. Or that the forms of speech in which they traffic have redeeming qualities. They don’t.”

The individuals booted from Facebook were notorious for dangerous forms of speech, and at least in the eyes of the mainstream media, they merited their forced departure from the world’s largest social media platform.

That was the major story; but what is hiding in the shadows of Facebook’s announcement?

The New York Times report hinted at it in its lead paragraph. Reporters Mike Isaac and Kevin Roose stated that Facebook had for years wrestled with the intersection of free speech and hate speech, concluding that it needed to ban these extreme voices. The key phrase of The New York Times article was the label of these censured voices: “Many of whom are conservatives.”

This raises a host of questions, namely, why did Facebook almost exclusively ban conservative voices while leaving many incendiary liberal voices untouched?

The issue gravitates around the word “conservative”—what does The New York Times mean when it uses the word in this context?

The definition of a conservative refers to a principle commitment to conservation—to conserving the long-sanding institutions and traditions that must be protected and conserved because they are essential to human happiness, health, and flourishing. That represents a classical understanding of conservative. The New York Times, however, did not employ the word conservative in the classical sense. The paper used the word “conservative” but referred to a radical subset of the political right.

The “right” does not equate with conservative. Indeed, the same principle applies to the difference between classical liberalism and the political “left.” Yet, the left, usually far left, controls the cultural and creative capital of societies—they possess the platforms, which decide who is allowed in a public forum and who is not. The same is true for ideas. The control officers of modern culture are generally liberal. To them, the left fringe looks far less frightening than the right fringe.

But the reality is actually worse than just described. Liberalism often fails to distinguish between conservatives and the extremists of the right. This can be driven by intention or by carelessness, but the result is the same.

On Thursday of last week, Facebook released a statement that read: “We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology. The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”

The New York Times reported that Facebook’s move, “is one of the tech industry’s broadest actions to punish high profile extremists at a time when social media companies are under fire for allowing hateful content and misinformation to spread on their services. It is a politically delicate moment.”

This social media age is indeed in a politically delicate moment and Facebook’s decision comes as a massive, precedent setting move with sweeping moral implications. As the world has moved to platforms like Facebook to stay connected and share information, these freely-operated, privately owned companies now have the enormous responsibility of functioning as an arbiter—deciding what speech is allowable speech and what speech is classified as extremist hate speech. Facebook has granted itself a powerful authority to decide which voices will be heard on its platform with a staggering 2.3 billion users.

With a membership amounting to more than a quarter of the world’s population, when Facebook bans a user from its website, it effectively removes that individual from a worldwide, cultural conversation.

Facebook, however, finds itself in this moral quagmire. Does it serve civilization to police speech the way Facebook did last week? This question has perplexed the brilliant minds of human history, especially American history. The founders of the nation enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution a guarantee for the freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Like all the protected rights in the Constitution, there are eventually boundaries, but these boundaries are not easy to define. The Supreme Court can declare that freedom of speech does not permit yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. It is not immediately clear how that principle is to be applied to other contexts and speech. How does a nation that protects the freedom of the press deal with that freedom during a time of war? Is the press free to print information during wartime that would jeopardize a mission or compromise the success of a military campaign?

As perplexing as these questions are, the issue of Facebook only intensifies the confusion. Brett Stevens’s opinion column that appeared in The New York Times argued that Facebook has no legal obligation to protect free speech by virtue of Facebook’s status as a corporation. As a business, it has the right to set its own policies and practices. Facebook functions like a business, not a government bound by a constitution and accountable to the public. On the other hand, one could argue that Facebook possess more power than many governments on earth, especially with regard to the power of information.

Stevens rightly argues, “The issue is much simpler: Do you trust Mark Zuckerberg and the other young lords of Silicon Valley to be good stewards of the world’s digital speech? I don’t, but not because conservatives believe (sometimes with good reason) that the Valley is culturally, politically and possibly algorithmically biased against them. As with liberalism in academia, the left-wing tilt in tech may be smug and self-serving, but it doesn’t stop conservatives from getting their messages across. It certainly doesn’t keep Republicans from winning elections. The deeper problem is the overwhelming concentration of technical, financial and moral power in the hands of a people who lack the training, experience, wisdom, trustworthiness, humility and incentives to exercise that power responsibly.”

Indeed, we do know the predominating worldview that governs Silicon Valley. The overlords of the digital world have made that abundantly clear.

But Silicon Valley finds itself engrossed in massive political binds. Two competing worldviews arise in this technological, legal, and moral quandary facing social media giants—namely, the European understanding of free speech as opposed to the American model of free speech.

The European tradition of free speech views the right as conditioned by national interests and governmental power. Thus, a right to free speech is more conditional. In some cases, freedom of speech is merely tolerated. An illustration of this would be criminalizing the refusal to use a person’s preferred gender pronoun. That’s not a hypothetical situation. That is happening in Europe and in Canada.

Those nations, therefore, have exerted pressure on Facebook to clamp down on the types of speech that appear on the platform. Facebook faces a dilemma: either it will comply with European governments and curtail free speech, or the company will face fines, penalties, or even being shut down in those countries.

Meanwhile, the United States presents Facebook with a host of other challenges. Though the nation protects the freedom of speech, will the United States allow Facebook to police themselves, or will the federal government enact legislation to regulate Facebook?

The moral and ethical questions that gravitate around social media are staggering. These social media companies, dominated by a progressive and radically leftist worldview among their leadership, have the power in their hands to shut down any speech they deem hateful and harmful. That means Facebook or Twitter can shut down accounts associated with the pro-life movement. Again, this is not hypothetical.

So, this is the story lurking in the shadows. The seven evicted people from Facebook might be the tip of the iceberg. If Facebook deems that speech as hateful, what will stop them from labeling my speech or your speech as hateful? Who draws the lines and who decides what speech should not enjoy protection? Facebook has not even made its criteria clear.

We live in a day when merely opposing abortion or affirming the traditional understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman can be labeled as hate speech that causes “harm.” Just remember the father in British Columbia charged with “family violence” for refusing to agree with his child’s “gender transition.” We live in a day where believing that gender is binary is, in itself, identified as harm and violence.

This means that those who hold to a biblical worldview will increasingly find themselves in a precarious position with their use of social media platforms. Those in Silicon Valley have drawn a line in the sand. They are sold out to the LGBTQ revolution and promote unfettered access to abortions. Christians may soon find themselves joining the ranks of the evicted for simply holding to a biblically minded worldview and expressing those views on their own social media accounts.

Lord Acton famously said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

From a biblical worldview, however, we understand that human sinfulness corrupts power. The centralization and concentration of power—in this case, the power of social media and information—will have disastrous outcomes within free societies.

Facebook has transitioned from a platform allowing for the individual user to connect socially, to a provider of content and information. Facebook produces, edits, and manages its own content. This marks a fundamental shift in Facebook’s original intent as a social platform for the user.

The rules have changed. Facebook has changed. The entire environment and threats to free speech have changed. Christians bear the responsibility to observe these events and, when necessary, cast a light on the stories hiding in the shadows.

The story from Facebook this week is not a story of banning violent voices from its platform. No. The story is in the shadows—it is the lurking threat to free speech as we know it.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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