Can American democracy survive social-media censorship?

Congress must realize that freedom of speech is too fundamental an American issue to compromise for a short-term advantage.

Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook's F8 2018 conference, April 30, 2018. Photo by Anthony Quintano via Wikimedia Commons.
Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook's F8 2018 conference, April 30, 2018. Photo by Anthony Quintano via Wikimedia Commons.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, senior security editor of The Jerusalem Report and a contributor to The Hill and The Jerusalem Post. He regularly briefs member of Congress and their foreign policy advisers about the Middle East.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand co-sponsored legislation against the BDS movement in 2017, but under pressure from the far-left activists at a town hall meeting took the unusual step of withdrawing her sponsorship in the name of free speech, defending the right to boycott and delegitimize Israel with taxpayer dollars. She said that, “Someone who is in favor of BDS can speak their mind and somebody who is against BDS can speak their mind, but you are always allowed to speak your mind.”

So is it true in 2020 that you are “always allowed to speak your mind,” as Ms. Gillibrand passionately said?

This all comes to mind as the leading technology CEO’s from Google, Twitter and Facebook were forced to answer questions from the Senate Commerce Committee about their alleged censorship of news stories. This most recently came to a head when Twitter censored a New York Post story about Joe Biden son’s financial dealings with China, and the presidential candidate possibly standing to benefit from the deal. During the testimony, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts made the case for less free speech saying, “The issue is not that these companies before us today are taking down too many posts down. The issue is that they are leaving too many dangerous posts up.”

Across the aisle, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado highlighted the perceived hypocrisy as Twitter has allowed the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to deny the Holocaust and threaten Israel’s survival on Twitter. Gardner said, “I just don’t understand how Twitter can claim to want a world of less hate and misinformation while you simultaneously let the kind of content that the Ayatollah has tweeted out to flourish.“ Twitter’s CEO defended the posting of the Ayatollah’s venom as the free-speech of world leaders, calling it at worst, “saber-rattling.”

So it does seem that free speech today is a flexible principle depending upon the specific issue, and is only tolerable if it doesn’t undermine one’s political viewpoint or advantage.

To understand where limitations on speech have arisen from over the last decade, just look at what has been happening on the American college campus, a harbinger of how Congress may view unfettered speech if one party controls both the legislative and executive branches of government.

Progressive advocates of limitations of speech have paradoxically used their right to free speech as a justification to shout down, censor and intimidate the speech of other people if it offends their sensibilities. Just ask former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren or Palestinian human-rights activist Bassam Eid, whose talks were repeatedly disrupted by far-left progressive agitators at UC Irvine in California and the University of Chicago, respectively. According to The Forward, “members of the audience took issue with Eid’s opposition to boycotting Israel and with his focus on wrongdoings of the Palestinian Authority, not of Israel,” which crossed their line of legitimate speech.

So who has the right to censor speech and decide what the public has a right to hear in a democracy?

Social media‘s influence is already omnipresent and is rapidly growing. It affects the perception by every citizen in Western democracies of events, while authoritarian anti-American regimes like Iran, China and Russia take advantage of our freedom of information by maliciously using disinformation to undermine our trust in the public sphere, a dagger in the heart of a democracy.

Going forward, we need to find reasonable solutions for these complex issues, which will be difficult in a hyperpolarized country, but for the good of our republic we cannot delay. In theory, we should all be able to agree that eliminating factually incorrect statements or foreign-based disinformation in the media is in our nation’s interest. But how can that be done without some form of censorship? The public certainly doesn’t trust the media to self-police themselves. Attempting to legislate fair solutions in today’s climate, where politicians have a “flexible” interpretation of our First Amendment rights based more on political expediency than ethics, will be particularly difficult.

Making this especially difficult, we live in an era where people with differing opinions are not only disrespected, but are also demonized with the call to censor their opinions. This is an outgrowth of the breakdown of what constitutes objective journalism in news stories. Too many journalists and media organizations who claim impartiality seem to believe it is appropriate to color the news towards their politically correct viewpoint. As The Wall Street Journal put it, “you know American civics education has failed when those baying for political controls on citizens’ expression claim to be champions of democracy.”

There was a time when the ACLU defended hate speech, advocating for the right of Nazis to spout their vile hatred and march through the neighborhoods of Holocaust survivors, as the foundational principle of freedom of speech outweighed the desire to censor noxious speech. Would today’s social-justice warriors tolerate that level of freedom of speech if it were directed at them or would they shut it down, as it would invade their safe spaces and cause irreparable psychological harm?

The 2020 presidential election may be less transformative than what Congress ultimately decides to do about respecting free speech and tolerating obnoxious opinions in our social media, where far too many people get their primary information within their cloistered echo chambers.

This moment in history is far too important for political partisanship to prevail. Congress must realize that freedom of speech is too fundamental an American democratic issue to compromise for a short-term advantage.

What goes around comes around in politics, and our senators and congresspersons of both parties need to make a stand that for their legacies and the health of the American democratic experiment, they need to lean strongly on the side of a liberal interpretation of freedom of speech and restrain themselves in legislatively limiting it on social media, or their children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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