Currently the social media platforms can decided which content to allow on their sites because they are private entities. But many suggest that due to their popularity and ubiquitous presence in everyone’s lives, these platforms should be considered public spaces.
Public vs. Private Forum
First we must explore the difference between a “public” and “private” forum when it comes to speech. Public forums are celebrated in the United States as spaces that allow for all forms of free speech. But what should be considered a “public forum” is the subject of heated debate in the social media era.
Obvious public forums include parks and subway stations. The question of whether a social media platform such as Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest is a public forum may be crucial in determining the free speech protections that apply to what you “post” online.
In determining whether freedom of speech applies to what you place on a social media platform, the Supreme Court is expected to look at related precedents. One case is a recent federal court of appeals ruling, upholding a finding that Twitter is considered a public forum as it relates to the First Amendment right to free speech for at least some public officials.
This application of free speech is easily applied to government related activities but not necessarily applicable to private activities not relating to a government actor. The court is likely to prevent a government representative from barring free speech but probably does not have much legal standing to prevent a private company such as Facebook from restricting speech on its own platform.
In 2016, Facebook released a list of media outlets that it used to determine what stories made it into Facebook’s Trending Topics module at the time. One Forbes critic wrote that this type of “discretion” by Facebook demonstrated geographic bias against Africa and the Middle East.
That may seem trivial, but consider the bigger picture on such “discretion.”
Other social media platforms such as Twitter and Pinterest have been following Facebook’s lead by tightening the rules on what can be posted. As rules continue to become stricter on what can and cannot be posted on social media platforms, it is feared that the same rules will apply to the press and news media outlets that do not share the same views as moderators—or perhaps censors—at the corporate headquarters of the tech giants in Silicon Valley.
Social Credit Scores?
At the same time, recent news reports that U.S. tech companies are looking to implement a Chinese-style “social credit score.”
In China, an authoritarian country, social interactions including, but not limited to, what you post online are taken into consideration to create a “social credit score.” This score also takes into consideration talking poorly about government officials and protesting government activities.
In China, there are two nationwide lists, called the blacklist and the red list. The blacklist consists of people who have disobeyed the law or cultural norms. The red list includes those who have stayed out of trouble.
These lists are publicly searchable on a government website called China Credit. For an individual living in China, being placed on the blacklist makes it virtually impossible to obtain a job in the business or government sectors. Many of the more established companies that manage other industries in China are showing preference for job applicants that are not on the blacklist.
Concepts similar to the social media credit score in place in China has surfaced in the United States when the New York State Department of Financial Services announced in 2019 that life insurance companies can base premiums on what they find in your social media posts.
Freedom of speech in the US does not mean freedom of social consequences for your speech. But as the United States moves closer to a world of greater scrutiny on social media platforms, we grow closer to a world where a single company, or small number of companies, wield absolute and ultimate authority over what is permitted on a social media platform. Whether or not social media platforms are considered “public forums” may have long-lasting implications for speech.