If the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had the ability to time travel two-hundred and thirty years into the future, they likely would be fascinated not only by electricity, space travel, the iPhone, and modern fashion trends, but by the scope and power that their words still hold today within the U.S. Constitution. They could not possibly have imagined developments in technology that deeply complicate many of the rights that were guaranteed to Americans back in the late eighteenth century. From the semi-automatic rifle, to the NSA, we are constantly forced to question exactly what the Framers meant by their language in the Bill of Rights and how that applies to current, ever-changing technology and politics. The emergence of a unique news and social change platform Twitter and the question it poses about the freedom of speech in a corporate america is no exception. Twitter complicates the way we have to interpret our first amendment rights because it forces us to question how much sway our rights hold when under the reign of a corporation. In the modern world when the globe’s most influential people are interacting on a corporation’s platform, we have no choice but to question how our rights work and to whom they apply when living in the global, media-centered society of 2017.
The Framers likely had no concept of what the modern-day corporation would be like in 2017. They did not know that the Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission case would rule that corporations had the same free-speech rights in campaign donations as an individual person. They also likely would not even be able to conceptualize the issues of a social media platform banning or censoring user’s speech. Not only that, but they would perhaps be disappointed by our use of these social media platforms for news and information. The current issues and questions of our free speech are now forever intertwined with the constantly evolving use of social media and technology to share and gain information and have complicated the way we look at company’s choices, the way we learn and communicate, and even our bill of rights.
Twitter has arguably revolutionized the way people get their news and communicate. It is used as a medium for news, jokes, conspiracy theories, campaigns, advertisements, communication, and even dramatic political revolutions. It is seemingly a fairly open network used for everyone, of all walks of life, locations, political views, and opinions to convey their message to the world in an effective and concise way. On their website, Twitter constantly attempts to convey the message of being a barrier-free platform. In their values they say that they “believe in free expression and think every voice has the power to impact the world” and that, “diverse perspectives make us stronger.”
Inevitably, people attempt to put statements like that to the test. For example, public figures like ex-Breitbart writer, Milo Yiannopoulos, have attempted to test the limits of Twitter’s values by saying purposely divisive and controversial things on the platform. Allegedly, though Twitter has yet to issue a statement on it, he was banned. Milo’s fans argue that Yiannopoulos’ ban, was not rooted in any aspect of Twitter’s conduct code, aside from their privilege to ban any account, at any time, for any reason. Because they seemed to lack any sort of outward justification for Yiannopoulos’ ban, Twitter faced significant backlash from his supporters. However, there is an argument to be made that Yiannopoulos’ tweets towards actress Leslie Jones, referring to her as untalented and “illiterate” constitute as harassment and justify a ban. Though seemingly valid, through quick analysis it is clear his tweets are arguably not any worse than the hate that he has received from other, un-banned, twitter users telling him to “kill himself as soon as possible” (@cccyyynnnooosss) or other countless tweets of similar harassment or death wished towards both him or and many others twitter users. These actions by Twitter force many people, whether supporters of Yiannopoulos’ rhetoric of not, to believe that Twitter is infringing their rights of free speech by banning someone whom they simply disagree with or who is just more vocal about less popular opinions.
In the opposite light, other, more liberal-minded parties have been upset with Twitter for almost the opposite reason. Twitter often gives professional accounts a small blue check-mark next to their names to indicate that they are verified as the person they claim to be. Recently, Twitter has awarded these verification checks to people who had participated in the Charlottesville protest earlier this year, most prominently, Jason Kessler, one of the leaders of the march. Many believe that he does not deserve this verification due to his Neo-Nazi leaning. However, the question of free speech arises here as well. Does twitter have the right to ban or verify whomever they choose? Is it a violation of people's’ free speech for Twitter to ban people at all? Does the Twitter Corporation have free speech rights of its own?
Twitter is more than just a social network. This is abundantly clear because of its unique capacity to initiate change. The rules of having a safe, friendly, and agreeable community that social networks like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat uphold simply does not apply to a medium like Twitter because Twitter has incited legitimate social change in the world. It arguably was the catalyst for Arab Spring in 2010. The President of the United States actively communicates to American citizens using this platform. Even ISIS, the biggest threat to US security right now, is on Twitter through various sub-accounts. To argue that it is a happy, safe place for people to share the things going on in their life is simply not the case. For this reason, Twitter, even though it is a corporation with rights for itself, should not ban its users unless legitimate laws are being violated (harassment, violent threats, etc).
According to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that allows corporations to have their own free speech rights in terms of campaign donation, one may argue that because Twitter is a corporation, it can exercise those same rights over their users. Ironically enough, many of the people who are deeply in support of the overturning of Citizens United v. FEC believe that Twitter should act on their right to ban whomever they so choose. One cannot really justify supporting both of these opinions. Either corporations should have a strong voice or they should not.
Though technically Twitter does retain the rights to dismantle any accounts at will, it does not mean that they should. If Twitter actually prides itself on its ability to enact legitimate change as well as supports their value of diverse perspectives and free expression, they should not ban any accounts unless such accounts pose a legitimate threat. Not only that, but many believe that Twitter has a responsibility to uphold this freedom that they pride themselves on because their platform has become so widely used by all walks of life to initiate legitimate social change. Of course there is the argument that Twitter users have the personal disgression as to whether or not they want to join the site and publish their opinions through such a medium however, when world leaders like the president of Indonesia, the prime minister of India, the prime minister of Turkey, the pope, the Sheikh of the UAE, the president of Argentina, the president of Colombia, the president of Brazil, the Prime minister of Russia, the president of the United States, and many more are all active Twitter users, it is difficult to say that using this medium to enact effective change is much of a choice.
On a platform like Twitter that really does have the capability of changing the world, it is dangerous territory to censor anyone at all.