Blogs & Comment

Should Twitter censor?

When a company controls important information infrastructure, do its obligations change?

(Photo: Steven Puetzer/Getty)

Last weekend, a despicable “hashtag” trended* on Twitter, one promoting the idea that violence against women is OK. By Sunday morning, tweets using that hashtag were mostly critical ones, expressing outrage at any non-critical use of the hashtag. One prominent twitterer, Peter Daou (@peterdaou), asked why Twitter wasn’t preventing that hashtag from trending. He tweeted: “Unbelievable: Is Twitter REALLY allowing #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend to be a trending topic??!”

The outrage expressed by Daou and others is entirely appropriate. The hashtag in question is utterly contemptible. But the question of whether Twitter should censor it and prevent it from trending is another question altogether.

The central argument in favour of censorship is that the idea being broadcast is an evil one, and decision-makers at Twitter are in a clear position to either stifle its spread or allow its proliferation. With great power comes great responsibility.

The most obvious reason against censorship is freedom of speech, combined with the slippery slope argument: if Twitter is going to start censoring ideas, where will it end? Freedom of speech is an important right, and that right includes the right to speak immoral ideas. Limits should only be imposed with great caution.

Now, it’s worth noting that the hashtag trending isn’t actually anyone’s speech: it’s the aggregate result of thousands of individual decisions to tweet using that hashtag. So if Twitter were, hypothetically, to censor the results of their trending-detection algorithm, they wouldn’t actually be censoring anyone, just preventing the automated publication of a statistic. But perhaps that’s a philosophical nicety, one obscuring the basic point that there is danger anytime the powerful act to prevent a message from being heard.

More importantly, perhaps, Twitter isn’t a government, it’s a company, and it doesn’t owe anyone the use of its technology to broadcast stupid ideas (or any other ideas, for that matter). We insist that governments carefully avoid censorship because governments are powerful and because, as a practical matter, we cannot opt out of their services as a whole. If a company doesn’t want to broadcast your idea, it’s not morally required to. Your local paper, for instance, isn’t obligated to publish your Letter to the Editor. The right to free speech isn’t the right to be handed a megaphone.

But then the challenging question arises: is Twitter a tool or a social institution? Just how much like a government is Twitter, in the relevant sense? It is, after all, in control of what many of us regard as a kind of critical infrastructure. This is a challenge faced by many ubiquitous info-tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google. While their services are, in principle, strictly optional—no one is forced to use them—for many of us going without them is very nearly unthinkable. We are not just users of Twitter, but citizens. That perspective doesn’t tell us whether it’s OK for Twitter to engage in censorship, but it does put a different spin on the question.

*Note: “Trending” on Twitter means that Twitter’s algorithm has identified something as, roughly, a “novel and popular” topic in recent tweets. Trending topics are featured prominently on Twitter’s main page.