Facing pressure to ban a hatemonger, a tech company like Facebook, Google, or Twitter initially demurs, saying that while some may find his speech (or her speech, but usually his) objectionable, it doesn’t violate the platform’s rules. After a torrent of outrage, the tech company changes its mind and takes some form of action. Activists claim victory, conservatives cry censorship, and eventually, the controversy dies down — until the next time.
It’s a cycle that we witnessed last year with Facebook and the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the host of Infowars. The social network first declined to take action against Jones’ pages, saying it would be “contrary to the basic principles of free speech.” After three weeks of public pressure, Facebook changed its stance, saying, “We believe in giving people a voice, but we also want everyone using Facebook to feel safe.”
It played out again last week with Google and Stephen Crowder. Crowder is a right-wing comedian who had used his YouTube channel to lob homophobic taunts at the Vox writer Carlos Maza. On June 4, Google-owned YouTube indicated that it had carefully reviewed Maza’s complaints and found that Crowder hadn’t violated its rules. By the next day, with a rather predictable backlash in full force, YouTube shifted into reverse, saying that a “deeper look” at Crowder’s videos revealed a “pattern of egregious behavior.” It opted to “demonetize” his channel, meaning that Crowder could no longer make money from his YouTube videos, though he would not be banned from the site.
To one side, the reversal looks like a hard-won victory: A major tech platform has been shamed into doing the right thing. To another contingent, it smacks of mob rule: A major tech platform has been goaded into moving the goalposts to censor a politically incorrect voice.
What should be clear to both sides, by now, is the extent to which these massive corporations are making up the rules of online speech as they go along. In the absence of any independent standards or accountability, public opinion has become an essential part of the process by which their…