Censorship of Internet Social Media

Politicians, and others who wish to influence the course of politics, now advertise on Internet social media.  These advertisements are scattered among the huge amount of content that people put up when communicating with their families, friends and neighbours.  Some of those who post on social media can hide their identities, and they can be located anywhere in the world, so much of what people read cannot be held to account in the same way as traditional media.

As described above (, the big Internet companies wield enormous power and enable “fake news” to spread very quickly.  This is lucrative for them, but it can be very damaging to society:

●  The US elections in 2016 were influenced by Russia, as admitted in a subsequent investigation reported in The Guardian: Tech giants face Congress as showdown over Russia election meddling looms.

●  The BBC reported that “Climate change denial is spreading unchecked on Facebook, two studies by disinformation researchers have found”.

●  The Lancet reported that “31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube”.  The anti-vaccine movement has cost thousands of lives: Covid-19: Unvaccinated face 11 times risk of death from delta variant, CDC data show.

A BBC article, Social media: How might it be regulated?, describes some of the options being considered in Britain.  These include requiring social media companies to remove harmful, misleading or false content when this has been reported; allowing algorithms to be inspected for harmful bias; and preventing the very rapid spread of stories until they have been fact-checked.

When social media companies regulate what is published on their platforms, they are wielding powers of censorship and they can make mistakes.  For example, Facebook’s AI treats Palestinian activists like it treats American Black activists. It blocks them.  Twitter admitted having a similar problem, and the “companies blamed the errors on glitches in artificial intelligence software”.

Freedom of speech is a difficult topic which recurs in many places in this book, as can be seen from its free speech index.  This dilemma was recognised when Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, after his use of the platform helped to create the conditions for a riot: as reported in a BBC article: Twitter boss: Trump ban is ‘right’ but ‘dangerous’.

It is important to allow people to criticise a government – and the importance of free speech is described at the end of this chapter (6.8.3).  The Economist has argued that Censorious governments are abusing “fake news” laws, but democracy (or any form of government) can suffer if lies are allowed to spread unchecked.  Spreading misinformation is different from legitimate criticism, and politicians shouldn’t be able to win elections or provoke riots just by lying.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6428a.htm