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Editorial: Censorious Facebook

By The Editorial Board, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Op Eds

Counter speech doctrine posits that the best remedy for negative or inaccurate speech is more accurate, positive speech.

There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, of course, including obscenity and fraud and speech that incites imminent lawless action. Generally, though, offensive and inaccurate speech is protected.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg needs reminding of this fact. As of Oct. 12, his company began banning content that "denies or distorts the Holocaust." The decision comes on the heels of new sanctions against the QAnon conspiracy theory, effectively banning such content from the platform.

Both are examples of the darker side of the First Amendment. Holocaust denialism is asinine, offensive and alarmingly prevalent during a sharp rise in anti-Semitism. QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, is often baseless, often distasteful and has been linked to real-world criminal activity.

Add to this mix some studies indicating that more outrageous fringe content earns the lion's share of interactions on social platforms, ensuring that it is shared often and widely.

Facebook is a private company and has the right to make such sweeping bans to objectionable content.

But how does this serve democracy?

If there's one way to increase attention to an idea or movement, it's to conspicuously hide it from the public eye.

If there's one way to ensure that someone's frankly terrible ideas remain unchallenged, it's to banish them to the darker recesses of internet message boards.

 

If individuals' hurt feelings are taken into consideration in evaluating free speech doctrine, America is being shaken to its very core.

The legislature and court system have crafted over the past two centuries careful, scalpel-precision exceptions. The original counter speech doctrine dates back to 1927, but Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy reiterated the ethos as recently as 2012, writing: "The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth."

Facebook should not be in the business of censoring speech. Fact-checking content if it can be done with transparent, consistent standards is far more reasonable.

The social media giant isn't a news site but an aggregator — it doesn't produce original content but disseminates individuals' and companies' content. As soon as it begins banning or "shadow banning," de-emphasizing certain kinds of content in the algorithms that determine how widely certain content spreads on the platform, the company becomes a de facto arbiter of truth.

No matter how distasteful the banned subjects might be, part of living in a free society includes extending that freedom to fringe groups and conspiracy theorists. Facebook should reverse its decision and highlight problematic content through fact-checkers. Counter speech doctrine must hold.

Free speech must be protected.

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