Editorial: Censorship and the online cafe

  • A sign supports QAnon during a protest rally last May in Olympia, Washington. Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts associated with the far-right conspiracy theory following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.

    A sign supports QAnon during a protest rally last May in Olympia, Washington. Twitter says it has suspended more than 70,000 accounts associated with the far-right conspiracy theory following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. Associated Press File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted1/23/2021 2:00 PM

Many conservatives, and certainly supporters of Donald Trump, are applying a label of "censorship" to the moves by Twitter and other social media platforms to suspend the former president's accounts -- as well as those of many others who swim in the same sort of muddy waters of insult and innuendo.

As a news organization, of course, we are strong proponents of free speech and reflexively opposed to the idea of censorship.

 

But this debate is more complicated than that.

Our own experience teaches us that the Wild West is an ugly and harmful place.

Years ago, when the World Wide Web was born, we were excited about its potential to broaden public interaction. Here, as one piece of that, was a chance for the public to comment in real time on the stories we published.

What a great step forward in the democracy, we thought. What a force for civic good. It provides, we thought, an expanded public forum to enable the community to debate the issues of the day.

No question, it certainly offered and still offers that. But it also offered the chance for hurtful people to sign onto car crash stories and make fun of the victims of those crashes. It also offered the chance for neighbors to trade insults. It also made it easy for uninformed people to pass along baseless rumors and for unscrupulous people to spread lies.

We found that in addition to opening the doors to a new age of enlightened civic debate, the new forum also opened the floodgates to a sea of ugliness. Our editors seemed to spend all their time tamping down this ugliness.

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So we had to develop rules of fair play.

And then we had to enforce them.

Regrettably today, the regulated commenting on dailyherald.com and on our social media pages are not as energetic and muscular as we once envisioned or would now hope.

But it is much more responsible. And much more honest. And much fairer.

We heard an analogy the other day that seemed to put it best. Imagine you are in a restaurant. And imagine someone gets belligerent and starts shouting. As a customer, you would expect the restaurant to do something about it. And the restaurant undoubtedly would.

Would the restaurant's behavior constitute censorship? Well, you could argue that the restaurant is suppressing someone's speech. But it still would need to be done.

Yes, Big Tech is too big, and we all should be concerned about how powerful it has become. That's an important issue.

But it is a different issue than the issue of whether someone should be able to disrupt your meal with insults, threats and misinformation.

A private business has the right to regulate the environment within it.

The real question is how do we allow for the regulation of onerous behavior while protecting productive debate?

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