How Iran illustrates the fallacy of social-media censorship

Twitter’s refusal to censor Iran’s leader the way it does President Trump is appalling and hypocritical. But that’s also why it’s a mistake to demand that the same people ban hate speech.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Dec. 27, 2017. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Dec. 27, 2017. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israeli human-rights attorney and Zionist advocate Arsen Ostrovsky hit the nail on the head during a recent Knesset committee hearing about social media. Directly addressing the issue to a representative of Twitter named Ylwa Pettersson, who appeared via Zoom, Ostrovsky asked a simple question. He noted that the social-media giant had recently begun “flagging” the tweets of President Donald Trump. Why then were they not doing anything to the account of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who “literally has called for the genocide of Israel and the Jewish people?”

Petersson’s response was as illuminating as it was disingenuous. In a long-winded answer designed to obscure the fact that there was no real answer, she attempted to draw a distinction between the two. The company, she said, differentiated between leaders who “inspire harm” and those who engage in “direct interactions with other public figures, comments on political issues of the day or foreign-policy saber-rattling on military and economic issues [which] are generally not in violation of our policy.”

The chair of the committee, Blue and White Party Knesset Member Michael Cotler-Wunsh, tried to follow up asking, “So calling for genocide is okay, but commenting on politics is not okay?”

Pettersson ignored her and droned on about how those who “glorify violence” like Trump—a reference to a tweet in which he deplored the violence committed during riots after the May 25 death of George Floyd and his insistence that public order be restored—must be flagged. Nor did she respond to Cotler-Wunsh’s pointing out that this was yet another example of a “double standard” in which anti-Semitic threats are excused, rationalized and ignored, while political positions opposed by Twitter are placed behind warnings so as to limit the public’s interaction with them.

Outrage about Twitter’s appalling stand was widespread. As far as many observers were concerned, it was another piece of evidence showing that large social-media companies don’t care about anti-Semitism. That’s why leading Jewish groups have been calling for ad boycotts of Facebook and Instagram this summer. Unlike Twitter, Facebook (which also owns Instagram) has no formal censorship program in place. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have been using a combination of advocacy and boycott threats to try and pressure them to follow Twitter’s example.

Those efforts have gained support for understandable reasons. The presence of hate mongers and groups on social media is deeply troubling. The Internet and companies who dominate it, like Google (which also owns YouTube), as well as forums like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, have created a genuine problem. They provide bad actors that in previous eras would have remained isolated and marginalized, and instead handed them a megaphone that amplifies and expands their impact.

These companies have had impunity against legal action against the hate they wind up enabling because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That provision allowed Internet companies to avoid being classified as publishers and therefore be responsible for the content they hosted. In essence, it treated all of them as glorified bulletin boards that couldn’t be held responsible for what was placed there by other people.

That created a virtual Wild West on the Internet that was good for free speech, but also allowed hate to find a home.

High-minded opponents of anti-Semitism say that has to end. They want these companies to act to censor purveyors of hate, and well-meaning supporters of such groups—like actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who compared Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the owner of a restaurant that served Nazis who were loudly calling for the death of the Jews rather than throwing them out—think they’re right.

Twitter’s inability to defend its policy of giving people who call for genocide of the Jews a pass will only strengthen their resolve to call for more social-media censorship. But if these same people were thinking clearly about the issue, they’d realize it proves why the idea is a huge mistake.

The problem with more censorship is that Twitter’s efforts, as well as the first steps down that road by Google and Facebook, show that it isn’t possible to ask these companies to merely do the decent thing and take down the likes of Louis Farrakhan and the genocidal theocrats running Iran.

Twitter has no more interest in addressing anti-Semitism than does Facebook. But what it is interested in doing is wielding its enormous power to advance the political agendas of its leaders and staff.

Trump tweets things that are off-base and sometimes not true. But the same can be said for many politicians. Trump is different in that he understood quicker than most that Twitter provided him with a way to reach voters without the filter that the media has employed in its traditional role as information gatekeeper. So it’s understandable if hardly justified that his media critics want to reassert their power. That’s why they have targeted Trump, whose policies and persona are despised by the left-leaning staff and ownership of social-media companies.

That pattern has characterized the actions of Google and Facebook in the past, which have targeted conservative publications and writers for the sort of treatment that has made them harder to find or read.

Should they choose more censorship, people like Khamenei have little to worry about. Twitter, and no doubt Facebook, will find a way to rationalize continuing to publish hate from oppressive governments lest they are shut out of large and potentially lucrative markets. Instead, they will not only do more to silence Trump and his supporters, but likely extend their scrutiny to Israel and its friends.

A company that thinks there’s an inimitable threat to civilization from a political opponent in the White House making comments that are merely controversial but finds Iran’s genocidal threats unexceptionable is simply incapable—regardless of what sorts of measures it puts in place to deal with the problem—of making rational or moral choices about whose voice to silence. And if they are going to play censor, then Trump and other Republicans are right to demand the abolition of Section 230 so they can have the same liability problems as other publishers instead of being simply cash machines with no accountability.

That should remind us why free people should always be wary of any idea that sets us off down a slippery slope towards censorship, especially when it relates to political ideas.

If there’s one thing we should have learned in recent months, it is that most people value their safety far more than their freedom. When it comes to giving up some of our autonomy to ensure public safety during a pandemic, that can be defensible. But when it comes to shutting up unpopular or even hateful ideas, then that’s a threat to everyone’s liberty. Given more encouragement to censor, Twitter and other such giants are more likely to target defenders of Israel than those who want to annihilate it. People generally only miss their freedom when it’s taken away from them. But if you think social-media companies can be trusted to do that to bad guys but leave the rest of us alone, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates