In April, a federal court ruled that President Trump’s Twitter account serves as a public forum, meaning that his account may not block other Twitter users. Writing in the New York Times, law professor Noah Feldman declared: “This is the first time, to my knowledge, that the First Amendment has ever been applied to a private platform.”
In Silicon Valley, however, the thinking is currently very different. Social-media companies favor censorship, especially as a means to deal with the topical issues of “hate speech” and “fake news.” Facebook, for example, recently published its “community standards” policy on censoring “hate speech” in the wake of many months of bad press and public inquiries. The tech giant promises its users protection from attacks on race, ethnicity, disability, gender, and so on. Facebook even inadvertently released a proposed new feature that asked users whether each social-media post they encountered qualified as “hate speech.”
Facebook’s message is clear: Censorship is absolutely necessary, and we, the users, can be deputized to turn in those who break the rules.
By assuming the role of moderator for the opinions of its two billion users, Facebook is now in the extraordinary position of being the world’s top arbiter of acceptable speech. If we choose to accept that Silicon Valley should be tasked with censoring views that, in a public space, would be constitutionally protected, then the tech giant’s approach appears reasonable. But, as those outside the Silicon Valley bubble — including conservatives, anti-Islamist activists, and moderate Muslims — are increasingly finding, there are far too many examples of Silicon Valley applying its policies unreasonably.
Over the last few months, YouTube has restricted or removed a number of videos uploaded by my accounts. One was a BBC debate I did on the question of Islamism. Uploaded four years ago with the permission of the show’s producers, it had, until its removal, received around half a million views. YouTube banned this debate, featuring Muslims and non-Muslims on both sides of a balanced and well-moderated argument and broadcast on British state-funded national television, only stating that it contained “inappropriate content.”
Perhaps this was an innocent mistake. Appeals, however, have gone unanswered. And this small inconvenience to me is dwarfed by the scale of censorship taking place across social-media platforms today. Amid the current furor over Facebook’s behavior, which has dominated the news over the past few months, a number of politicians have questioned this embrace of censorship. During Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in April, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) denounced Facebook’s decision to suppress conservative social-media pages, and Representative Bill Johnson (R., Ohio) asked Zuckerberg why Facebook had removed an advertisement featuring Jesus on the cross and deemed it “violent.”
It is not just conservatives who are targeted. Long before the removal of my BBC debate on Islamism, moderate Muslims and critics of Islamist political ideology found themselves subject to bans and restrictions on social media for articulating reasonable ideas and criticisms that deserve debate rather than restriction.
Since July 2016, Google has censored videos published on YouTube by Prager U, a digital-media publisher that produces short videos discussing topical questions. Restricted videos included presentations about Islamism given by moderate Muslim voices, including by Kasim Hafeez, a British Muslim who now speaks out against the same Islamist anti-Semitism in which he once believed; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an anti-Islamist campaigner and women’s-rights activist; and Khurram Dara, a prominent American Muslim author.
In 2017, Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) was targeted by “a coordinated reporting and flagging campaign” that led to Facebook’s restricting their posts. EXMNA opposes radical Islam and offers a home to apostates facing abuse and persecution. Nothing it posts on social media is remotely hateful.
In fact, censorship of anti-Islamist voices by Silicon Valley is now an almost weekly occurrence. Just last month, Canadian intelligence expert and prominent anti-Islamist researcher Tom Quiggin lost access to his Gmail and YouTube accounts after Google decided that a trailer for a podcast merely mentioning the issue of extremism warranted a suspension.
In February, the Middle East Forum submitted a call for examples of censorship on social media to the readers of its mailing list. In just a few days, we received hundreds of responses. Our readers and allies, upon posting anti-Islamist content, have had Facebook accounts shut down, YouTube videos demonetized (i.e. shown without advertising, thus depriving the poster of revenue), and the reach of Twitter accounts suppressed.
Silicon Valley’s efforts to silence anti-Islamist voices should perhaps have been expected as early as 2012, after YouTube blocked access to a film titled “Innocence of Muslims,” which portrayed the Islamic prophet Mohammed rather unflatteringly. If blasphemy had become one of Silicon Valley’s mortal sins, then detailed criticisms of Islamist political ideology were inevitably due to face censorship as well.
Interestingly, part of Silicon Valley’s current reasoning for censoring “hate speech” is that it is a key component in counterterrorism efforts — ostensibly, censorship helps reduce online radicalization. But Facebook, Google, and other tech companies do not apply the heavy hand of censorship equitably. While counter-extremist activists and moderate Muslims are silenced, plenty of genuine terrorist content remains online. In 2015, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) flagged 115 videos on YouTube that openly incited or celebrated terrorism. Two years later, in June 2017, MEMRI reported that 69 of these videos remained online.
Islamists, meanwhile, have actually benefited from the burgeoning tech-censorship movement. In July 2017, a prominent Salafi cleric, Omar Suleiman, successfully lobbied Google to adjust its algorithm to exclude search results for Islamic terms such as “jihad” and “shariah” that lead to “offensive or clearly misleading content.” Suleiman describes homosexuality as a “repugnant shameless sin” and a “disease” that will “destroy our children.” He warns women, without condemnation, that if they are “promiscuous” or “open [themselves] up to a relationship,” their father “kills you and he kills the guy — you are offending Allah.” Is Suleiman really the right Muslim to advise tech companies on extremist content?
Because lawful extremist movements work to exploit Western systems rather than destroy them, it has proved easy for Islamist activists and their apologists to use the simple complaint processes offered by social-media companies to paint criticisms of intolerant ideologies as broadly brushed hate — thus furthering the extremist agenda and silencing its critics. With the proposed new “hate speech” button, Facebook will make this exploitation even easier.
Reasonable people regard criticism of Islamism to be unworthy of suppression, but rather something to be discussed openly and urgently. Unreasonable people, meanwhile, aided by simplified online reporting processes, hysteria about “fake news” and “hate speech,” and the misuse of counterterrorism efforts, have painted legitimate criticism as deadly offense and encouraged others to be offended as well. Tech companies, in thrall to lawful Islamists and their fellow travelers, have been happy to oblige. For moderate Muslims and their supporters, Silicon Valley offers little support.
Censorship is not, of course, the only issue currently plaguing Silicon Valley’s reputation. Harvesting of customers’ data and the much-discussed prevalence of “fake news” have dogged companies such as Facebook and Google for years. While conservatives and moderate Muslims claim their views are restricted by social-media companies, others, citing the dangers of xenophobia and hate speech, conversely call on Silicon Valley to enact even more censorship and restrictions. The current political attitude to Silicon Valley is clear: Reform or risk regulation.
But when you’re beset by criticisms from all sides, what does reform look like? Social-media companies are certainly not in an easy position. Any change is bound to upset someone. As private entities, Silicon Valley corporations are currently free to publish or censor whomever and whatever they want. But after years of Silicon Valley marketing teams telling the public, press, and politicians that they offer a selfless public service, it is not particularly surprising that politicians around the world are increasingly regarding social media as a public utility.
In the wake of the federal court’s ruling that the president’s Twitter account is subject to First Amendment rules, one step Silicon Valley can take to fend off greater government oversight is not to fight that idea, but to embrace it. Social media should make a voluntary public commitment to the same rights of free expression that the government is required to guarantee its citizens in the public square. Politicians will find it difficult to justify regulating corporations that embrace the same constitutional ideals by which government is bound.
Otherwise, any further attempts by Silicon Valley to tackle “fake news” and “hate speech” will inevitably end up silencing those who engage in neither — whether conservative, liberal, Muslim, or anyone else. The better option for social-media companies is to commit openly to free speech for all users, regardless of their political views. Silicon Valley should be told: If you don’t restrict us, then we the people won’t restrict you.
Sam Westrop is the director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum