A New Digital Mass Incarceration? 5 Things Black America Needs To Know About Silicon Valley Censorship Issues

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison

After the violent insurrection by pro-Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, President Donald Trump was banned from several social media platforms. The action led many to to decry it as Silicon Valley censorship of Trump’s free speech. Others celebrated the action, saying since social media companies are privately-owned, they have the right to censor who they want.

Those who are against Trump’s ban – some of whom are not even Trump supporters – believe the ban could be the start of a slippery slope and have bigger implications. They wonder if Trump’s case is evidence of a new digital mass incarceration and note Black Americans are often among the most impacted by such policies. Here are 5 things Black America needs to know about Silicon Valley censorship issues.

1. Trump’s permanent ban from Twitter and indefinite ones from Facebook, Instagram and other Silicon Valley companies have caused some to question whether the companies have gone too far with censorship.

On Thursday, Jan. 7, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company judged that Trump’s recent posts “effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence.” He said they were extending the block they’d placed on Trump’s “Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

On Friday, Jan. 8, Twitter announced it would permanently suspend Trump from its platform “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” In a statement detailing its reasoning, Twitter said Trump’s subsequent tweets after the Jan. 6 riot “were highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place …”

A slew of other Silicon Valley tech companies including Google, Apple, YouTube, Amazon, Snapchat, Reddit and others also wither disabled Trump’s accounts or stopped allowing gathering places for his followers (i.e. Banning the Parler app).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was one of the outlets to express concern over the companies’ actions.

“It should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions,” the ACLU told media outlets, according to News3LV.

2. Repealing Section 230, part of U.S. Law that provided protections to big tech companies, could increase Silicon Valley censorship.

Section 230 protects social media companies like Facebook and Twitter from being held liable for user content. President-elect Joe Biden has mentioned being in favor of repealing the law, Business Insider reported.

However, some experts say in lawmakers attempt to regulate hate speech, it could actually lead them to censor users even more.

“Even small changes to Section 230 could majorly shift how platforms approach moderation. If platforms become more liable for the content users post, they may be more indiscriminate in how much content they remove under their moderation policies,” Business Insider reported.

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Daphne Keller is the director of Stanford Law School’s program on platform regulation. She underscored the point.

“Things like hate speech and medical misinformation are often First Amendment protected speech, for better or for worse. That means CDA 230 is not the reason it gets left up […] In fact, CDA 230 actively encourages platforms to take that content down by giving them the immunities they need to engage in content moderation.” 

Jeff Kesser told Business Insider repealing the law could make big tech even more powerful and disenfranchise smaller companies.

“The companies impacted by Section 230 are not just Facebook and Twitter and Google. It’s any company that operates a website that hosts user content, so it’s everything from Facebook to a small local news site that allows user comments,” Kesser said.

3. There is concern censorship by Big Tech will impact Black Americans more if allowed to run rampant.

Nubai Ventures founder and digital media pioneer Jamarlin Martin recently tweeted proponents of big tech censorship should “be very careful,” particularly as it related to how it will impact Black Americans.

“You have to be very careful with the censorship cheerleading based on how America is structured. You are going to be censored first, the weakest are going to get the worst. They may try to enforce “Black neoliberalism” & corporate confederacy speak,” Marlin tweeted.

4. Black activists speech against racism has been heavily censored by Facebook and cited as hate speech. If not restricted, some believe it could get worse.

In 2019, USA Today published an article called “Facebook while black: Users call it getting ‘Zucked,’ say talking about racism is censored as hate speech.” It detailed the experiences of Black users being temporarily suspended formt he site for expressing their views on racism.

“Black activists say hate speech policies and content moderation systems formulated by a company built by and dominated by white men fail the very people Facebook claims it’s trying to protect. Not only are the voices of marginalized groups disproportionately stifled, Facebook rarely takes action on repeated reports of racial slurs, violent threats and harassment campaigns targeting black users, they say,” the report stated.

“It is exhausting and it drains you emotionally,” high school teacher Carolyn Wysinger told USA Today after one of her posts addressing racism was removed.

5. Silicon Valley censorship may harm Black small businesses and causes by inaccurately labeling them as harmful speech.

There are many examples of Black people being censored when they stand against certain causes. There are also examples of Black businesses receiving fewer resources than their white counterparts. Social media has helped Black activists and business owners gain momentum. Too much censorship curtail that progress, some believe.

“Black people in this country, and people of color in general, we endure a daily battle just to exist. Now we have to be careful not to complain too much about the various types of oppression publicly because, if you do, then you are going to be suppressed,” activist Ayo Henry told USA Today. “It’s difficult to navigate the framework of social media as a black person, just because racism is systemic and, when you realize it’s ingrained so deeply in a system that is so influential on our country, then it’s almost like a whole second burden to bear.”

“Social media is supposed to be a way that people can come together and be able to communicate relatively freely,” she continued. “For us, it has become just another slap in the face.”