Twitter recently created controversy when the social media giant refused to promote four tweets from the Center on Immigration Studies (CIS) because, they claimed, the language used words that violated their “hateful content” standards. Twitter permitted CIS to tweet the terms “illegal alien” and “criminal alien,” but they weren’t able to widely distribute the content beyond their own followers.
Although the company eventually reversed its decision (calling it a mistake), the incident demonstrates the potential risk to freedom of speech posed by biases among social media companies and their workers. Unlike news outlets that choose to slant their coverage through the use of “undocumented immigrants,” as opposed to the accurate term “illegal aliens,” social media platforms, such as Google and YouTube, have the power to censor and literally shut out views they deem “hateful.”
Twitter is not the only platform to take greater authority over what is or is not considered acceptable content for dissemination. Facebook is now conducting its own fact-checking process to vet what articles, photos and videos are flagged as “potentially false.” As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted, being designated as such can limit a post’s reach by 80 percent.
When brought before Congress in early September, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told Congress neither of their companies was manipulating their platforms to achieve certain political goals.
Google refused to provide a witness for the hearing – which is not all that surprising given the recent report in the Wall Street Journal that employees discussed ways to “leverage” search functions in the days after President Trump proposed a temporary travel restriction on citizens from countries that support and/or harbor terrorists.
One email suggested the overall plan was: “Leverage search to highlight important organizations to donate to, current news, etc. to keep people abreast of how they can help as well as the resources available for immigrations [sic]or people traveling.”
Google chief Sundar Pichai insisted in an internal memo to staff that search results are not biased, but there is reason to think he is protesting too much.
It appears that employees at Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google and Google subsidiaries, have donated more than $5.8 million to Democratic candidates and causes, compared with only $403,042 to Republican leaning candidates and groups – or 94 percent, according to GovPredict.com.
As coverage of pending Trump administration actions on immigration enforcement and the midterm elections ramps up, the potential censorship of certain viewpoints, voices and language is not simply evidence of bias, but would also be a threat to democracy.