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Censorship On Social Media


You've probably heard these outrageous claims pushed by Alex Jones, host of InfoWars, to his millions of followers - Democrats running a child molestation ring out of a D.C. pizzeria, the Sandy Hook shooting staged with child actors, a Parkland school shooting survivor is like Adolf Hitler. Last Monday, some social media companies that carry InfoWars took a stand. Facebook, Spotify and YouTube, among others, removed Jones' accounts from their platforms. They said InfoWars violated their terms of use. Twitter, though, refused to take down InfoWars. CEO Jack Dorsey said the Alex Jones site had not violated its rules, which prohibit direct threats of violence and some forms of hate speech.

The handling of Alex Jones and his InfoWars poses a big question - what is the responsibility of social media platforms to moderate misinformation or incendiary viewpoints? To answer that question, we have invited Kara Swisher, editor of the tech news site Recode, and also Mark Penn. He's a former Microsoft executive and was a longtime political aide to the Clintons. They wrote opinion pieces on this issue that appeared in The New York Times and The Hill.

Kara, let's begin with you. You criticized Twitter for its decision to not ban Alex Jones. Why?

KARA SWISHER: Because they've spent years and years not dealing with these issues for a long time. By the way, Alex Jones has violated terms of service at Twitter, as pointed out by CNN and many others. And so my issue is that they've taken a very, very long time to deal with an issue they've been very much aware of, and they've sort of wrapped themselves around an axle on this one and never dealt with it fully.

SINGH: Mark, let's turn to you. In your piece, you warned about big tech becoming Big Brother. But let's look at the consequences of Alex Jones' conspiracy theories. A man believed the Pizzagate story that Jones promoted during the 2016 election cycle and took an assault rifle and fired inside that establishment. Shouldn't media platforms actually regulate this kind of speech?

MARK PENN: Well, look - we are a First Amendment society. We were founded on the First Amendment. We don't hold people responsible for speech that doesn't create a threat of imminent violence. If his speech did create a threat of imminent violence, our legal system would hold him responsible. If we are, in effect, going to have these enormous platforms that were meant to be open platforms now decide what gets listened to and what's not, there's no limit to what could happen here or how social pressure can put people in vogue one day and out vogue the next.

Look, I've never read Alex Jones (laughter). I don't have any intention to. But 2 1/2 million people subscribe to his channel. That says somebody's interested in it. And, in a free society where somebody is completely accountable, visible - he says who he is. He's not an anonymous bot - he should not be censored unless he violates those basic rules by which we live in this society.

SWISHER: You know, Mark, it's not censorship. It's - this is a private company. That - just the way Disney fired Roseanne, anybody can do anything on private companies. These are not governments. And that's what happens...

PENN: Oh, I...

SWISHER: ...Here. They make it into this First Amendment thing. It's not a First Amendment - he can be...

PENN: ...It's wrong.

SWISHER: He can create a website. He can...

PENN: I'm saying that...

SWISHER: He can create a website...

PENN: These platforms...

SWISHER: He can create a website...

PENN: ...Are semi-monopolies. They have tremendous power, and it is a failing of the First Amendment and our legislation that it doesn't cover these emerging platforms...

SWISHER: Right, exactly.

PENN: ...Because these are the only places that people can genuinely have a voice. And if they're subject to censorship at the whim of Mark Zuckerberg or the head of Twitter, or you're pushing the head of Twitter to censor somebody - well, we're going to lose the open democracy that we have, and that's far more dangerous than allowing some kooks some airtime. And that has always been our judgment.

SINGH: We know that media outlets - we have radio stations, we have, you know, publications that - you know, they decide every day what to run and what to restrict. You know, the Constitution, as you've noted, bars only the government from restricting free speech. But we have media outlets that decide on a daily basis what should be restricted and what should be run. And they don't believe in censorship, but it's about responsibility. So why shouldn't the public expect the same of these tech giants such as Facebook or YouTube to exercise a similar kind of editorial judgment?

PENN: Well, because these companies were set up as platforms, open platforms in which media companies could then go on the platform and broadcast, much like, say, cable TV. Now, if the companies themselves are going to be media companies, then that's a different role, and they have to be regulated under an entirely different set of protections and rules of the road. Because now they're media companies, and so Congress gave them a special exemption because they were platforms that they're basically not responsible for almost all the content on their platforms. If instead they're going to be media companies, we've got to take that away and treat them as media companies.

SWISHER: But, you know, Mark, they...

PENN: It's complete different.

SWISHER: Mark...

PENN: I'd like to see them stay platforms.

SWISHER: Mark, they are not platforms anymore. They're media companies. And they're a different kind of media company. And what they've done is they've ridden on the backs of media companies and taken all of the economics out of it, which has hurt media companies. And then they are essentially media companies.

Now, maybe it's a new kind of media company. Maybe our legislators have to pay a lot more attention and figure out how to do this, although I have grave doubts about that. It's a situation where they get all the benefits and none of the responsibilities, and I would like them to step up and have responsibilities. The minute you do that, you're called - you're saying you want to censor them. You absolutely do not want - I want them to have values and rules and standards like I have to have on my site and any media company has to have.

SINGH: But, Kara, you write that Twitter has become a cesspool of hate speech...


PENN: ...In recent years. That hate speech may be unpleasant. It may even be...

SWISHER: Absolutely.

SINGH: ...As one colleague put it, deplorable. But should such comments actually be banned? I mean, where do you draw the line when it comes to expressing personal views that may be highly uncomfortable for the next person?

SWISHER: That is something Twitter has to decide. But they can decide that and then reap the problems or the benefits from it. They have created this platform, and they have very little control of it. And then they throw up their hands and say whatever, and I don't think that is an answer now. Now, things have changed and got - have changed rather quickly with these companies having enormous powers. But you can see what happens when a platform is abused. And look at what happened with Facebook and the Russians. They weren't paying attention. They were at - now, they're like...

PENN: Oh, come on.

SWISHER: ...So, so sorry.

PENN: You know, this is...

SWISHER: They...

PENN: ...Just a gross exaggeration.

SWISHER: No, it's not a gross exaggeration.

PENN: There's...

SWISHER: Mark...

PENN: ...140 million posts a day on Facebook.

SWISHER: I'm so sorry they're big, but they still have responsibility for their platform. They - absolutely they have...

PENN: Well, they should get rid of bots and do an efficient job, but that has nothing to do with censoring anything.

SWISHER: My - sorry.

SINGH: No, go ahead, Kara. Go ahead.

SWISHER: No. My - I'm not talking about the censoring. They don't have responsibility of their platforms. What I want is some really thoughtful people taking control of this and acting like the adults they need to be on these platforms.

SINGH: OK, we're going to have to leave it there. Kara Swisher is the editor at large of the tech news website Recode and contributing writer for The New York Times. And Mark Penn is a former Microsoft executive and opinion contributor for The Hill.

Kara, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PENN: Thank you.

SWISHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.