Should Twitter Censor?

Last weekend, a despicable “hashtag” trended* on Twitter, one promoting the idea that violence against women is OK. By Sunday morning, tweets using that hashtag were mostly critical ones, expressing outrage at any non-critical use of the hashtag. One prominent twitterer, Peter Daou, (@peterdaou) asked why Twitter wasn’t preventing that hashtag from trending. He tweeted:

“Unbelievable: Is Twitter REALLY allowing #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend to be a trending topic??!”

The outrage expressed by Daou and others is entirely appropriate. The hashtag in question is utterly contemptible. But the question of whether Twitter should censor it and prevent it from trending is another question altogether.

The central argument in favour of censorship is that the idea being broadcast is an evil one, and decision-makers at Twitter are in a clear position to stifle the spread of that evil idea, or instead to allow its proliferation. With great power comes great responsibility.

The most obvious reason against censorship is freedom of speech, combined with the slippery slope argument: if Twitter is going to start censoring ideas, where will it end? Freedom of speech is an important right, and that right includes the right to speak immoral ideas. Limits should only be imposed with great caution.

Now, it’s worth noting that the hashtag trending isn’t actually anyone’s speech: it’s the aggregate result of thousands of individual decisions to tweet using that hashtag. So if Twitter were, hypothetically, to censor the results of their trending-detection algorithm, they wouldn’t actually be censoring anyone, just preventing the automated publicizing of a statistic. But perhaps that’s a philosophical nicety, one obscuring the basic point that there is danger anytime the powerful act to prevent a message from being heard.

More importantly, perhaps, Twitter isn’t a government, it’s a company, and it doesn’t owe anyone the use of its technology to broadcast stupid ideas (or any other ideas, for that matter). We insist that governments carefully avoid censorship because governments are powerful and because for all intents and purposes we cannot opt out of their services as a whole. If a company doesn’t want to broadcast your idea, it’s not morally required to. Your local paper, for instance, isn’t obligated to publish your Letter to the Editor. The right to free speech isn’t the right to be handed a megaphone.

But then the challenging question arises: is Twitter a tool or a social institution? Just how much like a government is Twitter, in the relevant sense? It is, after all, in control of what many of us regard as a kind of critical infrastructure. This is a challenge faced by many ubiquitous info-tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google. While their services are, in principle, strictly optional — no one is forced to use them — for many of us going without them is very nearly unthinkable. We are not just users of Twitter, but citizens. That perspective doesn’t tell us whether it’s OK for Twitter to engage in censorship, but it does put a different spin on the question.

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*The fact that it was “trending” on Twitter means that Twitter’s algorithm had identified it as, roughly, a “novel and popular” topic in recent tweets. Trending topics are featured prominently on Twitter’s main page.

2 comments so far

  1. Jonathan Breslin on

    Hi Chris, I think you have highlighted the important aspect of this case: the fact that Twitter is a company (as well as a social institution) but not a government institution. That means they don’t owe anyone use of their technology to exercise free speech. They retain the right to limit use of their technology in whatever way they see fit – which may be a bad business decision, and even perhaps an unethical one in certain situations, but is not an issue about free speech. What it comes down to is what kind of company Twitter wants to be, i.e., what values they want to stand for.

    Another point worth mentioning is that the “censorship” isn’t as problematic in my mind because of the way the technology is designed. As you describe, Twitter wouldn’t actually be censoring a particular person, or restricting any individual’s speech. All they would be doing is preventing the technology from spreading harmful speech. Thus, Twitter could take the position that people are free to tweet whatever they want, but their technology will prevent certain kinds of “evil” tweets from being proliferated through the trending algorithm. That might be a reasonable way to balance free speech with preventing the proliferation of harmful or evil ideas.

  2. […] Should Twitter Censor? (businessethicsblog.com) This entry was posted in Politics and tagged Facebook, hashtag, New York City, Trending topic, Twitter, Wall Street. Bookmark the permalink. ← Cloud Computing in Education […]


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