How Are We Being Censored by Social Media?

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Yet another viral video of doctors challenging the status quo regarding COVID-19 has been censored.[1] “America’s Frontline Doctors” stood before the Supreme Court building and testified of their experiences in treated COVID-19 patients. An impassioned Dr. Stella Immanuel spoke of successfully treating 350 people of all ages, some of whom had underlying conditions, without losing any patients and declared, “Today I am here to say that, America, there is a cure. All this foolishness does not need to happen. There is a cure for COVID. There is a cure for COVID. It’s called hydroxychloroquine. It’s called zinc. It’s called Zithromax.”[2]

Shared by such notable figures as President Trump[3] and Madonna,[4] this video immediately went viral, racking up over 16 million views within hours on just one of the many social media posts.[5] However, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter worked feverishly to remove it,” and by the day’s end, the video was memory-holed for containing “misinformation” that does not comport with the Centers for Disease Control.[6] Moreover, Donald Trump Jr. and Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward were penalized by Twitter for sharing the video.[7] The Washington Post reports, “Twitter said that it ordered the president’s son to delete the misleading tweet and that it would ‘limit some account functionality for 12 hours.’ Trump Jr. can still direct-message followers using his account, but he cannot tweet, retweet or like other tweets during the 12-hour restriction.”[8]

It is truly terrifying that a government agency and big technology companies have become the sole arbiter of truth and acceptable information. Increasingly, our freedom of speech is being revoked in the name of public health and the common good. Congress may be prohibited from limiting our freedom of speech, but the digital platforms necessary for communicating in the 21st Century certainly can. Several court cases have determined that social media companies are not subject to the First Amendment and are free to restrict speech on their platforms.[9][10] Increasingly, our voices are being silenced by these Big Tech companies.

 

Twitter

Despite considering itself to be the “free speech wing of the free speech party,”[11] as early as 2012 Twitter granted itself discretionary authority to restrict tweets to entire countries. The Twitter blog announced, “Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country – while keeping it available in the rest of the world.”[12][13]

In 2018 Twitter came under scrutiny when Project Veritas secured video of a former Twitter software engineer explaining how Twitter shadow bans certain viewpoints. According to the engineer, “The idea of a shadow ban is that you ban someone but they don’t know they’ve been banned, because they keep posting and no one sees their content. So they just think that no one is engaging with their content, when in reality, no one is seeing it.”[14]

Although Twitter denied the charges, their explanation essentially affirmed the accusation, admitting that the content of some users is not transmitted to their followers: “We do not shadow ban. You are always able to see the tweets from accounts you follow (although you may have to do more work to find them, like go directly to their profile)” (emphasis added).[15] Eventually, Twitter made shadow banning official with its updated terms of service, saying, “We may also remove or refuse to distribute any Content of the Services, limit distribution or visibility of any Content on the service, suspend or terminate users, and reclaim usernames without liability to you” (emphasis added).[16]

 

Instagram

Shadow banning is not limited to Twitter. Instagram permits users to restrict a follower so that only the person posting the comments can see the comment they’ve posted.[17] Ostensibly, this is to reduce bullying, but the practical result is the limiting of someone’s content reach without notifying them.

 

YouTube

YouTube has become notorious for alleged censorship. Notable names such as PragerU, Dave Rubin, Steven Crowder, and Ben Shapiro have been censored.[18] Citing violations of the company’s ambiguous policies against violence and hate speech, YouTube even deplatformed syndicated radio host Alex Jones “for glorifying violence” and “using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants.”[19] Collectively, his channels had boasted millions of subscribers and billions of views.[20]

Furthermore, YouTube actively uses algorithms to suppress videos that do not violate any specific policy but whose content is considered questionable by the company.[21] Features like comments and the ability to share videos it deems to be hateful are limited.[22] According to YouTube, “This step dramatically reduced views to these videos (on average 80%).”[23] Beginning in 2018, YouTube made changes to the recommended videos feature designed “to limit recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, or claiming the earth is flat.”[24][25] Almost immediately, this cut in half the number of views to content deemed Borderline by YouTube in the United States. And the company has begun deliberately “raising up more authoritative content in recommendations.”[26][27] News sources deemed credible by YouTube are pushed to the forefront while less authoritative and borderline content is intentionally suppressed.

Beginning in 2018, YouTube began removing thousands of videos and channels in an effort to reduce extremism and hate speech on its platform.[28] The company’s broad and nebulous new standard prohibited “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.”[29]

These purges have now extended to any content that disagrees with the World Health Organization (WHO) and social distancing guidelines issued by the government. A YouTube spokesperson told the BBC, “Any content that disputes the existence or transmission of Covid-19, as described by the WHO and local health authorities is in violation of YouTube policies.”[30] Likewise, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki brazenly admitted to CNN’s Brian Stelter, “We also talk about removing information that is problematic … Anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy. And so remove is another really important part of our policy.”[31]

 

Facebook

Facebook’s rulebook governing what users should be allowed to say is over 14,000 pages in length, with 200 pages dedicated to identifying hate speech.[32] Facebook uses a bevy of tactics to censor content. Some of these include deboosting live stream content—which suppresses the distribution of livestream videos of Facebook without notifying the user—and classifying users as Trolls based upon their vocabulary, friend network, and behavior.[33] Algorithmic bias,[34] news feeds that prioritize posts from friends and family over news organizations,[35] the outright banning of controversial figures,[36] default settings to filter-out content Facebook considers to be questionable,[37] and political bias[38] also factor into what a user is permitted to see.

Warnings are attached to posts that Facebook considers to be fake news, and their distribution is limited.[39] “Anti-misinformation” messages are added to the News Feeds of people who have engaged with coronavirus stories Facebook considers to be inaccurate.[40] Before opening the page, users are warned about the content and encouraged to share a link to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website.[41] Similarly, anyone who liked, reacted to, or commented on a post that Facebook later removed receives an encouragement to visit the WHO website.

According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, users do not progress to the questionable content 95% of the time after seeing a fake news warning.[42] Combining this with elevating authoritative health resources such as the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been effective means of promoting approved content by Facebook while steering users away from contrary information.[43] Facebook has even put a coronavirus information center at the top of the News Feed to provide Facebook-approved information on COVID-19.[44]

Moreover, Facebook is removing “harmful misinformation.” This includes such things as content that disagrees with the World Health Organization[45] and events promoting citizen protests against state-mandated stay-at-home orders.[46] Facebook spokesman Andy Stone has warned, “Events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook.”[47]

Most recently, Facebook has announced a “Supreme Court” for speech on its social media platform. A select group of 20 people, comprised of 10 men and 10 women, will make final determinations on what constitutes acceptable speech. Eventually, this group will be scaled up to 40 people.[48]

 

*****

This trend toward censorship in our nation’s community forums is deeply troubling. Our ability to defend and promote truth is quickly diminishing. However, we are commanded as Christians to speak and uphold truth (Eph. 4:25). Moreover, if we hope for our nation to be in a right relationship with God, then we must value and defend truth (Psa. 34:13; 51:16; Prov. 12:22). What is at stake is far more than personal freedom. At some point, we must push back against this trend toward censorship.

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Timothy Zebell

Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. Frenkel, Sheera and Davey Alba. “Misleading Virus Video, Pushed by the Trumps, Spreads Online.” New York Times, July 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/technology/virus-video-trump.html.

2. “Dr. Stella Immanuel: We Don’t Need to Die. There Is a Treatment for COVID.” PragerU Video, July 28, 2020. https://www.prageru.com/video/dr-stella-immanuel-we-dont-need-to-die-there-is-a-treatment-for-covid/

3. Superville, Darlene and Amanda Seitz (Associated Press). “Trump Defends Disproved COVID-19 Treatment.” U.S. News and World Report, July 28, 2020, 6:48 p.m. https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2020-07-28/trump-again-pushes-unproven-drug-as-covid-19-treatment.

4. Chudzinski, Kellie. “Madonna Supports COVID-19 Conspiracy Theory Video after It Was Removed by Social Media Platforms and Supports Doctor Who Made Bizarre Claims.” US Showbiz. Daily Mail (UK edition), July 28, 2020, 11:40 p.m., EDT. Last updated July 29, 2020, 3:00 a.m., EDT. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-8570679/Madonna-supports-COVID-19-conspiracy-theory-video-removed-social-media-platforms.html.

5. Frenkel, “Misleading Virus Video, Pushed by the Trumps, Spreads Online.”

6. Frenkel.

7. Frenkel.

8. Lerman, Rachel, Katie Shepherd and Taylor Telford. “Twitter Penalizes Donald Trump Jr. for Posting Hydroxychloroquine Misinformation Amid Coronavirus Pandemic.” Morning Mix. Washington Post, July 28, 2020, 6:18 p.m., EDT. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/28/trump-coronavirus-misinformation-twitter/.

9. Newton, Casey. “Facebook Adjusts News Feed to Favor Friends and Family over Publishers.” Verge, June 29, 2016, 10:00 a.m., EDT. https://www.theverge.com/2016/6/29/12055124/facebook-news-feed-algorithm-change.

10. “Manhattan Community Access Corp. et. al. v. Halleck et. al.” Supreme Court of the United States, June 17, 2019. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-1702_h315.pdf.

11. Halliday, Josh. “Twitter’s Tony Wang: ‘We Are the Free Speech Wing of the Free Speech Party.” Guardian, March 22, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/mar/22/twitter-tony-wang-free-speech.

12. Twitter Inc. “Tweets Still Must Flow.” Twitter Blog, January 26, 2012. https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/a/2012/tweets-still-must-flow.html.

13. Gerry Shih. “Twitter to Restrict User Content in Some Countries.” Reuters, January 26, 2012, 8:45 p.m. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-twitter/twitter-to-restrict-user-content-in-some-countries-idUSTRE80P28920120127.

14. Staff. “Undercover Video: Twitter Engineers to ‘Ban a Way of Talking’ through ‘Shadow Banning,’ Algorithms to Censor Opposing Political Opinions.” Project Veritas, January 11, 2018. https://www.projectveritas.com/2018/01/11/undercover-video-twitter-engineers-to-ban-a-way-of-talking-through-shadow-banning-algorithms-to-censor-opposing-political-opinions/.

15. Gadde, Vijaya. “Setting the Record Straight on Shadow Banning.” Twitter Blog, July 26, 2018. https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2018/Setting-the-record-straight-on-shadow-banning.html.

16. “Terms of Service.” Twitter, n.d. Effective January 1, 2020. Accessed June 1, 2020. https://twitter.com/en/tos.

17. Kozlowska, Hanna. “Instagram Wants to Fight Bullies by Shadow Banning Them—and Telling Them They’re Bullies.” Quartz, July 8, 2019. https://qz.com/1661410/instagram-wants-to-fight-bullies-by-shadowbanning-them-and-telling-them-they-are-bullies/

18. Hopkins, Anna. “PragerU Accuses Twitter, YouTube of Censoring Ads and Videos, Founder Calls out ‘Assault’ on Free Speech.” Tech. Fox News, June 26, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/tech/prageru-founder-accuses-twitter-youtube-of-censoring-advertisements-and-videos.

19. Timberg, Craig, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Hamza Shaban. “Apple, Facebook and Other Tech Companies Delete Content from Alex Jones.” The Washington Post, August 6, 2018. Accessed August 7, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/08/06/apple-facebook-other-tech-companies-delete-content-alex-jones/?utm_term=.8b7a19b73c5c.

20. Scheer, Holly. “The InfoWars Bans Aren’t about Alex Jones, They’re about Big Tech’s Control Over What We See.” The Federalist, August 7, 2018. Accessed August 7, 2018. https://thefederalist.com/2018/08/07/infowars-bans-arent-alex-jones-theyre-big-techs-control-see/.

21. YouTube Team. “Our Ongoing Work to Tackle Hate.” YouTube Official Blog, June 5, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://youtube.googleblog.com/2019/06/our-ongoing-work-to-tackle-hate.html.

22. Walker, Kent. “Four Steps We’re Taking Today to Fight Terrorism Online.” Financial Times, June 18, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/ac7ef18c-52bb-11e7-a1f2-db19572361bb. Source: Google in Europe Blog, June 18, 2017. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://www.blog.google/around-the-globe/google-europe/four-steps-were-taking-today-fight-online-terror/.

23. YouTube Team, “Our Ongoing Work to Tackle Hate.”

24. YouTube Team.

25. YouTube Team. “Continuing Our Work to Improve Recommendations on YouTube.” YouTube Official Blog, January 25, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://youtube.googleblog.com/2019/01/continuing-our-work-to-improve.html.

26. YouTube Team, “Our Ongoing Work to Tackle Hate.”

27. TeamYouTube. “Building a Better News Experience on YouTube, Together.” YouTube Official Blog, July 9, 2018. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://youtube.googleblog.com/2018/07/building-better-news-experience-on.html.

28. Roose, Kevin and Kate Conger. Business. “YouTube to Remove Thousands of Videos Pushing Extreme Views.” The New York Times, June 5, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/business/youtube-remove-extremist-videos.html.

29. YouTube Team, “Our Ongoing Work to Tackle Hate.”

30. Berrien, Hank. “WATCH: YouTube CEO: We’ll Remove Any Content That Goes against WHO Recommendations.” Daily Wire, August 21, 2020. https://www.dailywire.com/news/watch-youtube-ceo-well-remove-any-content-that-goes-against-who-recommendations.

31. Berrien.

32. Fisher, Max. “Inside Facebook’s Secret Rulebook for Global Political Speech.” New York Times, December 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/27/world/facebook-moderators.html.

33. “Facebook Insider Leaks Docs; Explains ‘Deboosting,’ ‘Troll Report,’ & Political Targeting in Video Interview.” Project Veritas, February 27, 2019. https://www.projectveritas.com/news/facebook-insider-leaks-docs-explains-deboosting-troll-report-and-political/.

34. Merrill, Jeremy. “Facebook’s Algorithm Makes Some Ads Discriminatory—All on Its Own.” Quartz, April 6, 2019. https://qz.com/1588428/new-research-suggests-facebooks-algorithm-may-be-discriminatory/.

35. Newton, Casey. “Facebook Adjusts News Feed to Favor Friends and Family over Publishers.”

36. Lima, Cristiano. “Facebook Wades Deeper into Censorship Debate as It Bans ‘Dangerous’ Accounts.” Politico, May 2, 2019, p.m., EDT. https://www.politico.com/story/2019/05/02/facebook-bans-far-right-alex-jones-1299247.

37. Zuckerberg, Mark. “A Blueprint for Content Governance and Enforcement.” Facebook, November 15, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/a-blueprint-for-content-governance-and-enforcement/10156443129621634/.

38. Hoft, Jim. “Facebook Eliminates 93% of Traffic to Top Conservative Sites – Stocks Plunge 24%.” Gateway Pundit, July 25, 2018. Accessed August 9, 2018. https://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2018/07/facebook-eliminates-93-of-traffic-to-top-conservative-sites-stocks-slide-24/.

39. Zuckerberg, Mark. 2020. “I want to share an update on the work we’re doing to connect people with accurate information and limit the spread of misinformation about Covid-19.” Facebook, April 16, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10111806366438811.

40. Robertson, Adi. “Facebook Will Add Anti-Misinformation Posts to Your News Feed If You Liked Fake Coronavirus News.” Verge, April 16, 2020, 10:37 a.m., EDT. https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/16/21223456/facebook-coronavirus-misinformation-fake-news-warning-update-who.

41. Robertson.

42. Zuckerberg, 2020, “I want to share an update on the work we’re doing to connect people with accurate information and limit the spread of misinformation about Covid-19.”

43. Zuckerberg.

44. “Social Media Giants to Stop Fake News Spreading the Coronavirus.” BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, March 20, 2020. https://www.bcs.org/content-hub/social-media-giants-to-stop-fake-news-spreading-the-coronavirus/.

45. Browne, Ryan. “Facebook to Remove Misinformation about the Coronavirus.” Tech. CNBC, January 31, 2020, 6:12 a.m., EST. Last updated January 31, 2020, 6:53 a.m., EST. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/31/facebook-to-remove-misinformation-about-the-coronavirus.html.

46. Culliford, Elizabeth. “Facebook Removes Anti-Quarantine Protest Events in Some U.S. States.” Reuters, April 20, 2020, 3:16 p.m. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-facebook/facebook-removes-anti-quarantine-protest-events-in-some-us-states-idUSKBN2222QK.

47. Culliford.

48. Mann, Sophie. “Facebook Appoints 20 Members to Its ‘Supreme Court’ for Speech Rules, Including Noted Trump Critic.” Just the News, n.d. Last updated May 7, 2020, 1:16 p.m. https://justthenews.com/nation/culture/facebook-appoints-20-members-its-supreme-court-free-speech-rules.