Should Social Media Companies Care About “Civility”?

As civilization has progressed, different social and technological innovations have given humanity new modes of thought to occupy and explore. A clear example of this is the internet. The internet has given humanity the ability to obtain information for just about any topic, in a matter of seconds. Environments that serve purposes other than accumulating data have also been birthed out of the internet—chiefly, social media.

The proverbial swamp of social media has provided a platform for the most diverse collection of thoughts to exist simultaneously at any time in history. But, this reality poses serious questions about the nature of civility and, by extension, freedom of speech.

These questions and more were the focus of the Ford Schools’ Big Data, Incivility, and Social Media lecture in November. The lecture, if it can be called that, was geared toward inviting listeners to formulate their own conclusions about the nature of civility in social media. This was rather refreshing, as most lectures have an authoritarian tone and delivery. What was quite striking, however, about the framing of the “lecture”, was the emphasis on civility. Civility, as it was presented in the discussion, was identified as the goal of online platforms; however, the use of civility as the end goal comes with a copious amount of intellectual baggage. Given the innate obstreperous nature of social media, should “civility” truly be the goal of social media platforming?

To start, what is civility? For some, the idea of civility is a mechanism by which the people in control maintain order. For social media, this looks like the censorship of voices that the company, say Twitter, finds to be recalcitrant or offensive. Take, for example, Alex Jones. The banning of Alex Jones is a clear manifestation of the power that this view of civility gives the social media companies.

Another view of civility is that it is the process by which justice is achieved. The banning of Alex Jones is also viewed as an attempt at justice. Alex Jones’s views are clearly viewed by some as offensive, even unjust. By banning Jones, one may argue, the online arena can be more amicable and welcoming. There are obviously more definitions of civility, but these two definitions were specifically mentioned in the presentation, and thusly will receive analysis.

The intertwining “arch of justice” and “power mechanism” views of civility, that many hold, call into question the prioritization of civility in the first place. It would be foolish to assume that the censorship of material or accounts that are deemed uncivil are done so purely out of a sense of justice. Who is conducting the censorship? People in power, particularly the proprietors of the social media platform must, by the very nature of authority, be the ones monitoring and purging. Censorship, no matter how “just” it is, is a byproduct of power dynamics. Likewise, the very definition of civility and justice are imbued with notions that have their basis in one’s passions and beliefs. Even with an entirely “just” method of censorship, someone, something, or a collection of people would have to be the arbiters. These unimaginably virtuous and just censors must be able to adopt a stoic demeanor that even Marcus Aurelius would envy.

This is not to say that civility is not important. It is painfully obvious why some regard the internet as a modern “wild, wild west.” However, the question must be: is the cost of enforcing “civility” worth the cost of freedom of speech? One does not need to look far to find the wreckage of freedom at the cost of the “high minded ideals” of civility.

A common misperception, especially among those who view freedom of speech as the paramount ideal of a free society, is that governments wish to eliminate “dangerous and contrarian” speech only after a calamitous event or social injustice. They point to present-day Germany, where speech and material pertaining to Nazism and Germany’s Nazi past is censored by the government. Many view this as a positive and productive, if censorship could truly be called that, way to distance modern Germany with its past. But where did this tradition and prerogative for censorship originate? The culpability does not lie with the current German government, but rather the Nazis themselves. What is masked as a just and virtuous attempt at progress is, in reality, a rehashing of mechanisms that led to the social injustice itself—the abandoning of freedom.

Recognizing that free speech’s death does not start after provocation, such as a church shooting or, to a far greater degree, a murderous totalitarian state, is central to its preservation. Vigilance of the powers that be must be the primary point of attack in preserving free speech. This principle must also apply to the realm of social media where freedom of speech has allowed the internet to thrive as a tool for human progress. The means by which this vigilance and protection are obtained, be it through the companies themselves or through third-party watch groups, I leave up to the reader

Before one dons the metaphorical white hat of civility and justice to “drain the social media swamp,” serious contemplation over the means and the goals of that sainted crusade must precede it; however, it is clear that the goal of civility is neither practical nor desired. Perhaps this was not the goal of the Big Data, Incivility, and Social Media lecture, but, it does shed some light onto the importance of serious deliberation when discussing esoteric concepts, such as freedom of speech, civility, and the mechanism by which these are preserved or created.

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