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On Social Media Suppression of Expression

In response to a comment of mine made in this Cafe Hayek post, University of Washington economist Ian Fillmore sent to me the following e-mail, in which he makes a superb point. I here share Ian’s e-mail in full with his kind permission:

Hi Don,

You write:

I still oppose using the word “censor” to describe the actions of private entities, but when those private entities are being pressured by government officials to restrict information, the situation obviously becomes cloudy.

I agree. I have been troubled about recent revelations that social media companies have been accepting…input…from government officials about their content moderation decisions. The extent of that input is still unclear and probably varies from case to case. But the prospect of government officials weighing in on content moderation makes me sick. I’ve been frustrated to see self-described civil libertarians wave this all away because “The first amendment applies to the government, not private businesses.” That’s true, but it completely misses the point.

To be clear, private social media companies can choose any moderation policy they want, although I think they should be transparent about it. Some moderation is probably necessary (vulgarity, pornography, harassment, etc.) to keep the platform from devolving into a sewer. But notice that this sort of moderation improves the quality of the product for the vast majority of users. In contrast, it appears that Twitter has been making it harder for users to see posts from people that they are following, which makes the product worse, not better. It’s very odd for a private company to deliberately reduce the quality of its product. For me, that’s a giant red flag that something other than basic content moderation is going on.

Ian Fillmore