A couple of weeks ago, Sasha Baron Cohen, a great actor and comedian, accepted the International Leadership Award at the Anti-Defamation-League summit on anti-Semitism and hate. In his acceptance speech, Cohen named Facebook “a propaganda machine” and pointed out several other internet companies that disseminate hate speech, causing lies to spread quickly to millions of users.
While Cohen mentioned a few despicable ideologies, including anti-Semitism, that are amplified over social media, and while we do appreciate his wish to fight those, his proposed solution — “it’s time for regulation and legislation to curb the greed of these high-tech robber barons,” — is both inferior to other approaches and most likely unconstitutional as well.
Cohen is not alone in his finger-pointing at Facebook for spreading misinformation and proposing regulation. In the last two years, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has appeared multiple times before Congress and was grilled on Facebook’s track record on civil rights and handling of privacy, hate speech and misinformation. Several Democratic presidential candidates even proposed breaking up Facebook.
Censorship is a slippery slope and may lead to the banning of content which has nothing to do with prejudice or hate speech. From 1933 to the outbreak of World War II, Winston Churchill was not allowed to speak on the BBC and warn his countrymen of Hitler’s Germany because this opinion was considered too controversial. This had catastrophic consequences.
Freedom of speech as defined in the First Amendment was not meant to protect popular opinions. It was meant to defend fringe ideas and opinions that may sound objectionable to some people or perhaps to most people. An example of the extent to which hate speech is protected is the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969, in which the court declared that even inflammatory speech, such as racist language by a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, should generally be protected unless it is likely to cause imminent violence. Similarly, anti-Semitism and hate speech, in general, are protected under the First Amendment and the government cannot censor them on Facebook or elsewhere.
A social network such as Facebook is just one example of an outlet that can be used to disseminate disinformation. Other examples are TV and radio stations. But the Federal Communications Commission, a government body that regulates TV and radio is “barred by law from trying to prevent the broadcast of any point of view” and from “censoring broadcast material, in most cases, and from making any regulation that would interfere with freedom of speech.” The same protections extend to Facebook.
However, Facebook should be free to decide what speech it allows and what it does not. Similar to some social networks, movies also reach millions of people, yet the government is not allowed to regulate their content. Self-regulation has been working great in the case of movies, where the Motion Picture Association of America — a non-governmental body — self-regulates movies and rates them for different audiences.
Even if it was constitutional, letting a government body regulate Facebook’s content would be necessarily “one size fits all” and inflexible, where the subject matter is inherently subtle and subjective. Currently, people that find some content offensive and are unhappy with the way Facebook handles it can opt out of that platform and use a different platform. Others may opt out if they think Facebook is doing too much to limit content. In contrast, legislation would impose the same limit on all platforms and will have to draw the line somewhere, which might be too permissive for some or too lenient for others, and opting out of one platform won’t help because the same limits would be applied to all of them.
Sasha Baron Cohen is right that the speed in which lies are spreading on social media is scary. However, the best way to fight lies, hate speech and prejudice is not by banning it but by arguing against it. Cohen’s paternalistic assumption hides his wish to ban speech he doesn’t like because he assumes people cannot think for themselves and that a government body should tell them what opinions are right and what opinions are wrong. Eventually, the responsibility is on us to distinguish lies from truth and to reject hatred and conspiracy theories, regardless of the platform.
This article was co-written by Oren Dobzinski and Anat Talmy. Both are software engineers who live in Pittsburgh. It originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.