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The 'censorship' distraction

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Bloomberg

Hey all, it’s Sarah Frier. I’ve gotten a few too many messages asking me if I agree with Big Tech’s decision to “censor” the president and silence his supporters. I’m alarmed because that’s the wrong way to think about it. Technology companies have not violated the First Amendment rights of Donald Trump or any of his fans by banning accounts involved in mob violence.

Rights to free speech are guaranteed by the U.S. government, not by private enterprises. You don’t have a right to say whatever you want on Facebook Inc. or Twitter Inc.

“Under current law there is no First Amendment problem whatsoever—zero—with what Twitter did, or Facebook,” Genevieve Lakier, a First Amendment expert at the University of Chicago Law School, told my colleague Kurt Wagner. “There is no right of access or right to speak on property that is privately owned.” In fact, the companies are exercising their First Amendment rights when they decide who to allow and who to block from their services.

We're talking about conservative silencing mainly because Trump and his supporters have used the charge to rally their base. They’re having little trouble spreading that message on Twitter and beyond, using TV networks, fundraising campaigns, press releases and more. It’s impossible for Silicon Valley to muzzle a president who has direct access to millions of supporters’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses and who can call a press conference whenever he wants. 

On Wednesday, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke to an international television audience during Trump’s impeachment proceedings wearing a mask that said “CENSORED.” But such claims aren’t a good faith effort to grapple with the impact of social media on U.S. discourse. Instead, the conservative rallying cry over free speech has become a distraction from a reckoning over last week’s violent attack on the Capitol.

Social media companies are constantly changing their rules, choosing to take action against behavior that they didn’t previously. That’s because in the past few years, it’s become clear that not enforcing against certain behavior—and allowing it to be amplified further by their algorithms—is also a decision, and sometimes one that leads to real-world violence.

There is no natural, neutral, unbiased state for social media companies because they have tailored their services to show people the content that they’re most likely to engage with, amplifying whatever gets an emotional response. Tech platforms are not like a phone company or public utility that just provides a connection. They take the message a step further with distribution. Trump was great at playing right into the algorithms’ biases.

It’s my hope for 2021 that we move beyond the question of what is or isn’t taken down by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and start talking more about the incentives built into these platforms that drive users down misinformation rabbit holes and foment anger and polarization. Tech companies enforced their own policies by banning users involved in the Jan. 6 attacks. But only structural changes will prevent the kind of radicalization that inspired it. Sarah Frier

If you read one thing

Intel gets a new CEO. Bob Swan is out; 30-year company veteran Pat Gelsinger is in. Intel, which has been battered by investors over the past year, saw its shares jump 8% after the news. 

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Trump is banned from Snapchat

Fintech company Affirm almost doubled its share price after raising $1.2 billion in an initial public offering. 

The Trump administration’s outgoing competition chief says he expects tech scrutiny will continue when Joe Biden is president. 

Facebook has seen an increase in users promoting violent events

Trump considered signing onto Parler using the pseudonym "Person X," before the platform shut down. 

Poshmark priced its shares at above its marketed range, and is valued at about $3.5 billion on a fully diluted basis.

Twitter chief Jack Dorsey tweeted on Wednesday that banning Trump was the "right decision." 

Sequoia Capital’s Doug Leone is no longer a Trump supporter. 

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