National News

Social Media Censorship Leads To the Rise of Free-Speech App

The Twitter application is seen on a phone screen Aug. 3, 2017. (Photo: CNS/Thomas White, Reuters)

WINDSOR TERRACE — “To suppress or delete as objectionable,” is how Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the verb “censor.”

Censorship typically is associated with fears that a government might try to squash free speech. That’s very un-American, considering the U.S.’s first amendment to its constitution says Congress, among other things “shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

In recent weeks, however, it has been members of Congress who claim social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have censored information from conservative politicians, or the government officials who work for them.

The drumbeat against traditional social media outlets accelerated in the months before the Nov. 3 election when conservatives claimed some of the platforms had frequently censored their views. Among the complainants was the Brooklyn-based Conservative Party of New York State, which saw its Twitter account thrice suspended during the first eight months of 2020.

This anger got a full venting in October during a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce Committee. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) grilled Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about the stifling of tweets by the New York Post.

The newspaper complained its Twitter account was locked in mid-October when it tried to promote its articles about the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Twitter and Facebook had limited the article’s presence on their platforms because they questioned the veracity of some of the details concerning emails taken from an abandoned laptop belonging to Hunter Biden. They said the information appeared to have been “hacked,” and could possibly cause misinformation to freely flow.

Cruz questioned if Twitter had the “ability to influence elections,” and Dorsey said “no.” But Cruz also said Twitter didn’t block tweets from The New York Times that purported to be based on copies of President Trump’s tax returns.

“That material was based on something that was distributed in violation of federal law, and yet Twitter gleefully allowed people to circulate that,” Cruz said. “But when the article was critical of Joe Biden, Twitter engaged in rampant censorship and silencing.”

Another complaint surfaced after the Senate committee’s hearing when acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf accused Twitter of censoring a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol official for “tweeting” about the construction of the new wall at the southern border.

According to the tweet, “Every mile helps us stop gang members, murderers, sexual predators, and drugs from entering our country. It’s a fact, walls work.”

But in a letter to Dorsey, Wolf said Twitter’s moderators emailed the official to say, “You may not promote violence against,
threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” Wolf said the tweet “did none of these things.”

“Whether you know it or not,” he added, “CBP repels and arrests thousands of violent criminal gang members each year. CBP rescues young girls who are forced into cross-border sex trafficking. CBP intercepts dangerous drugs and contraband, including enough of the opioid fentanyl to kill every man, woman, and child in the United States several times over. “Your company may choose to be ignorant of these facts, but it is no less censorship when you choose to suppress them.”

The reputation of censoring is a stark reversal of Twitter’s earliest image, which according to one of its early executives, was “the free speech wing of the free speech party.”

But since Dorsey founded it in 2006, the company said it had to engage in fact-checking to clamp down on content policies to avoid serious abuses like election tampering from foreign governments.

Enter Parler

Disgruntled conservatives, claiming they were targeted while liberals could tweet freely, are flocking to “Parler” — that’s French for “talk.” This new platform claims to be an unbiased home for social networking that honors free speech. Conservative politicians, pundits, and other users tout it as a powerful alternative to longtime platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Parler got a considerable boost in the hours on Saturday, Nov. 7, after the Associated Press projected Democrat Joe Biden the winner of the presidential race. President Donald Trump has disputed the results with lawsuits and his characteristic bellicose comments on, well, Twitter.

John Matze, one of Parler’s co-founders and its current CEO, went on the platform to celebrate how it doubled its user base in just a few days, making it the top free download on the Apple and Google Play stores. As of this writing, it now has 10 million users.

“All these new accounts snuck up on us out of nowhere,” Matze proclaimed on Parler. “I mean, we expected a million or so people today … but two? You guys are crazy.”

However, some observers say that while Parler is free-speech friendly, it has also become home to users who make extreme right-wing comments or promote conspiracy theories. Others complained some posts are anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic.

Matze recently told the news organization Cheddar that Parler is not into fact-checking, adding that people are smart enough to do that on their own “without our heavy hand.” In an article published last year by The Forward, Matze said he was unaware of racist comments on Parler, nor was he surprised if they existed.

“Don’t force these people into the corners of the internet where they’re not going to be able to be proven wrong,” Matze told The
Forward, a Manhattan-based digital magazine that reports for a Jewish-American audience. “If you’re going to fight these people’s views,” he added, “they need to be out in the open.”

Going Forward

It’s not difficult to believe most people operating social media companies tend to be liberal and opposed President Trump. Many are located in California’s Silicon Valley, which mostly favored Biden with votes and campaign contributions.

But did they really intend to censor conservatives? Could it be the fact-checking policies were implemented sloppily? That’s possible since, in Twitter’s case, it did not rigidly decide to keep the policies, but scrambled more than once to adjust them during the turmoil. Sen. Cruz still tweets. So does President Trump. Gerard Kassar, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State, said the party has gone over to Parler, and he has high hopes for the platform considering the problems the
party had this year with Twitter.

Kassar told The Tablet in September Twitter never explained what it found so objectionable on the party’s account. But it did apologize for the inconvenience. Kassar showed The Tablet Twitter’s note, which said, “We have systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk, and yours was flagged as spam by mistake.”

Kassar noted that Parler also has some bugs to fix. He called the current experience “cumbersome” with too many keystrokes needed before making an actual post.

“I advocate for Parler,” he said, “but when you get into the weeds of actually using it, it’s not a great experience at this time. But I’m hopeful.”

Despite all the headaches, Kassar said he is not giving up on social media; he needs it to reach moderates and “those fence-sitters.” “I’m not looking to talk to AOC and tell her where she’s wrong,” Kassar said. “But, quite frankly, the conservative movement must be able to talk to people. We believe there are people in the middle who might actually share our views, and may not know it, so we need to be on social media.

“If they hear us out, we might find common ground. That’s how political parties are grown.”