In brief

  • Recent measures by social media giants to censor content have met with criticism, most notably from President Trump.
  • Automated filters, spam abuse and "civic integrity" have been put forward, variously, as a defense by the platforms concerned.
  • Some users have responded by moving to other platforms or setting up their own,

Twitter opened a new can of worms in the censorship debate on Tuesday by “fact-checking” posts by President Donald Trump, suggesting he was wrong about voter fraud. 

Meanwhile, YouTube has been deleting comments with phrases that insult China’s Communist Party, and its sister company, Google, deleted millions of TikTok reviews. after the app's ratings fell to an all-time low. 

Millions of TikTok reviews have been deleted. Image: Shutterstock.

The tech titans have sought to explain away these latest swipes at the citadel of free speech. It’s because of automated filters, introduced due to workforce changes during the pandemic, argued YouTube; it’s to curb spam abuse, Google said, in reference to Tik Tok. Meanwhile, Twitter politely explained that the President simply violated its new “civic integrity policy,” which bars users from posting misleading information that could dissuade people from voting.

But many are having none of it. Today, Mati Greenspan, founder of Quantum Economics, asked his Twitter followers: “What have you done to #ungoogle yourself lately?”

And President Trump was fuming. “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!” he  responded.

Up to now, Twitter has proven a willing participant in Trump’s misinformation campaign. But good luck to him in getting its latest decision reversed. As millions of banned accounts have discovered, federal law protects the rights of internet platforms to moderate the third-party speech they publish. And Twitter has stuck to its guns. 

YouTube’s censorship crisis

Not so YouTube. It has since promised to fix the “enforcement systems’ error” that has led thousands of comments criticising China’s ruling Communist Party to be removed—a mistake that’s apparently gone unnoticed since October 2019, when the issue was raised on YouTube’s official help pages.

YouTube has been accused of censoring crypto content. Image: Shutterstock.

But it has plenty of other critics, including Elon Musk. In April, he slammed YouTube for removing a video of two doctors who were urging an end to lockdowns. 

And there are signs a YouTube backlash may have begun. Podcaster and sports commentator Joe Rogan announced his move to Spotify last week, while lambasting Google’s heavy-handed censorship of content providers. 

Popular crypto vlogger Ivan on Tech announced a move over on to his own platform earlier this month, after YouTube repeatedly censored his content. The cryptocurrency industry, often portrayed as a scammer haven, is an obvious target for social media censorship across all social media platforms. 

Social media platform’s policies towards cryptocurrency companies have often been uneven. For instance, on Google, genuine companies have complained of being banned from placing ads on its site, while the platform seemingly allows phishing sites who impersonate them.

On Facebook, some users have complained that using the single word coronavirus means a post is auto-censored. The platform hopes its new Oversight Board will resolve censorship dilemmas, but critics warn that “platform governance means platform interference,” and even the most qualified, objective censors are still censors, forced to make subjective distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech. 

What are the alternatives?

For some, the best course of action is decentralized alternatives, such as privacy enhancing browser Brave.

In fact, earlier this month, Tyler Winklevoss—cofounder of the Gemini crypto exchange and a venture capitalist known for his tussles with Facebook in the past—called for crypto entrepreneurs to start building the uncensorable social networks of the future. “A central party should not play referee,” Winklevoss told Decrypt, at the time.

Tyler Winklevoss, pictured with his brother Cameron, has called on crypto firms to build more decentralized platforms to combat censorship.

Cryptocurrency offers interesting possibilities for self-censorship. Reddit, for instance, is running an experiment using crypto as a measure of reputation, earned by submitting quality posts and comments.

The social media platform said its vision was for a new frontier: a free and fair Internet. It claims the Internet has been ruined by advertising, censorship and “walled gardens,” and cryptocurrency might offer a way out. 

The social media giants know that the battle isn’t really about spam or fraud. It’s about who gets to define truth. And there’s some consolation that Trump is subject to that too.