Facebook purged more than 800 pages and accounts on Oct. 11, including pages that posted antiwar and libertarian content, on both the left and right. Their common denominator was that each of them held an independent viewpoint. Watchdog groups like Cop Block and Police the Police were tossed down the memory hole. So were the Free Thought Project, Anti-Media, Nation in Distress, Reasonable People Unite, the Resistance, and Snowflakes. Other sites that Facebook deleted, like Right Wing News and Reverb Press, had larger followings than Newsweek. Many of these groups found that their Twitter accounts had been squelched on the same day. Other high-profile social media account deletions have also occurred in recent weeks and months.
Libertarians recognize that the right to free expression protects us from government censorship, but it doesn’t entail the right to use other people’s platforms and websites without their permission. Powerful social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, though, have increasingly blurred the lines between private standards of speech and government pressure to marginalize unpopular views.
After a Facebook spokesperson told the New York Times that it deletes accounts that have been placed on a U.S. government sanctions list, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote, “the U.S. government — meaning, at the moment, the Trump administration — has the unilateral and unchecked power to force the removal of anyone it wants from Facebook and Instagram by simply including them on a sanctions list. Does anyone think this is a good outcome? Does anyone trust the Trump administration — or any other government — to compel social media platforms to delete and block anyone it wants to be silenced?”
The definition of fascism includes “a capitalist economy subject to stringent governmental controls,” and deplatforming controversial social media users is now one of the methods that government officials can use to silence controversial voices. Libertarians would say under normal circumstances that Facebook and Twitter are privately owned platforms that have the right to do business or not to do business at their sole discretion, but when the power of government is brought to bear in private censorship decisions, rights of free expression are indeed violated.
Facebook’s official statement alleges that its recent removals targeted “inauthentic activity” consisting of “sensational political content?—?regardless of its political slant?—?to build an audience and drive traffic to their websites.” Real-world events, though, are often genuinely sensational — and framing them that way is merely a form of marketing.
Facebook’s statement was coauthored by its head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, who formerly worked as director for cybersecurity policy for the National Security Council in the White House. In 2017, several Silicon Valley media platform executives were summoned to testify before Congress. Much of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony focused on “fake news” and political bias. Misleading information posted online can certainly be a problem, but suppression isn’t the solution to bad speech. Instead, we need more speech, more voices offering their own corrections and perspectives to contrast the others. When censorship is on the table, the voices that are silenced are those that paint politicians in an unfavorable light.
Social media platforms and government interference potentially tied in more ways than we can keep track. The Central Intelligence Agency maintains a nonprofit venture capital firm named In-Q-Tel, which makes early investments in technology firms in order to maintain CIA access to new forms of technology. Among its investments is Palantir Technologies, which specializes in coordinating databases to assemble comprehensive dossiers, and which was founded by early Facebook investor Peter Thiel. Other In-Q-Tel investments include cybersecurity firm FireEye and Keyhole, which was acquired by Google and became the foundation for Google Earth. There are many others, not all of which have been made public.
It’s impossible to know whether government pressure led to the deletion of a page or account in any particular case, but when there is this much collusion between private and public spheres on an ongoing basis, systematic censorship becomes inherently suspect.
“Threat of crippling regulation is the cudgel that politicians wield against media platforms that stray too far from the official government position on what constitutes acceptable speech,” said Libertarian National Committee Executive Director Wes Benedict. “It’s probably not a coincidence that Facebook and Twitter are falling into line and becoming just as housebroken as the legacy media while we approach the crucial upcoming midterm elections.”
The Libertarian Party is running about 800 candidates for local, state, and federal office in the November election. Libertarians are steadfast in their support for freedom of press and speech for both independent and legacy media.