Most of us join social media to connect with others. We often use it to make our voices heard, and to have free and open conversations with people from different backgrounds.
But new evidence shows that government officials are working behind the scenes to control these interactions and pressure social media companies to pick winners and losers in our online debates.
Most recently, emails obtained by the Attorneys General of Missouri and Louisiana show two White House officials pressuring Facebook in April 2021 to limit the reach of a viral Tucker Carlson video that questioned the government’s stance on vaccines, even though Facebook said the video didn’t violate its company policy. Facebook authorities also admitted to limiting the reach of posts from other accounts, even when they contained accurate information. And another email shows a government official working to pressure Twitter to censor users who contradicted White House claims.
Free speech is not a privilege of those favored by the government—it’s the right of every person in America, regardless of their background or creed. Yet this is hardly the first example of closed-door discussions in which private companies are working hand-in-hand with the government to crack down on discussions and censor speech on their platforms.
In June 2022, the Biden administration announced the creation of a Task Force targeting so-called gender-based “abuse, harassment, and disinformation” online, with vague definitions for what sort of conduct falls under this category. Then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also admitted in a July 2021 press briefing that government officials “are in regular touch with the social media platforms,” flagging posts deemed “problematic.”
This lack of transparency and apparent collusion is concerning. People who turn to social media expecting to find all voices represented may be surprised to find it heavily skewed in one direction, with the government putting its thumb on the scale. And it’s no wonder that a recent study found user trust in social media platforms is falling.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Companies can improve trust with public and private stakeholders by embracing transparency about internal processes that impact people’s freedom to participate in the digital public square and access essential services. Viewpoint Diversity Score provides a roadmap for policies that acknowledge and respect people’s right to free and open debate in their internal practices.
Many companies already commit to transparency on issues like environmental stewardship, diversity practices, and supply chain sustainability. But of the 50 companies scored by the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index, not one of the 50 companies confirmed that they publicly disclose requests by governments or non-governmental organizations to restrict content or access to services.
Companies can take a first step towards restoring trust and respecting the free speech rights of people on their platforms by responding to the survey portion of the Viewpoint Diversity Score Business Index. Companies should publicly disclose any request or recommendation made by governments or non-governmental organizations to restrict content, along with the rationale for the request and the company’s response. These disclosures could be made through annual, semi-annual, or quarterly public reports released by the company. Social media platforms could also follow Facebook’s (Meta’s) approach in making these disclosures the responsibility of an independent oversight board.
America’s robust history of civil rights shows that change requires leaders who are bold enough to challenge the status quo. Companies can do their part to commit to a free society by ensuring that everyone has the freedom to voice their opinion, even when they disagree with the government.
By implementing standards of transparency companies will show that they are putting people—and their rights—first.