McKissick: Social media platforms are not bound by the First Amendment

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Collegian | Skyler Pradhan

A photo illustration of a person trying to post to Twitter whose account was recently suspended.

Nathaniel McKissick, Collegian Columnist

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

In recent years, the internet has become a hotbed of misinformation. In 1710, Jonathan Swift mused that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” Three centuries later, this quote still rings true, especially on social media platforms where the truth often goes unchecked by the everyday user.

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COVID-19 plunged us face-first into an era that exacerbated this issue even further, giving rise to misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, the coronavirus itself, ostensible treatments like ivermectin and ultraviolet therapy, mask sentiments and more.

In response, social media platforms that hosted these falsehoods have taken to suspending users or adding a flag to their posts, disclosing that the information displayed may contain inaccuracies or misinformation. Users have taken up arms, calling such labels and punishments censorship and an infringement of their First Amendment rights.

Although this comes up a lot during conversations surrounding misinformation on social media, the First Amendment — which protects free speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble and petition and the freedom of the press — only protects American citizens from infringement of these rights by the government, not private entities or platforms.

Those spreading false information on these websites seem to think of the First Amendment as their get-out-of-jail-free card, but that’s simply not the reality.

In the same way that private businesses have the right to refuse service to, well, just about anybody, social media companies can do the same. Though few actually read them, each platform has policies and rules by which users must abide when using their service. Twitter has policies on COVID-19 misinformation, violence and manipulated media.

“So is suspending someone for spreading misinformation censorship? In the most literal definition of the word, sure. But are anyone’s First Amendment rights in active danger when they receive the boot from Twitter? Absolutely not.”

Even sitting presidents aren’t immune to the iron fist of social media guidelines. In 2020, former President Donald Trump made several tweets containing unverified claims that the 2020 presidential election was actively being stolen. Twitter responded by attaching a flag, which made it clear that “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.”

In January 2021, Trump was suspended from YouTube and Facebook and permanently banned from Twitter. In the months following, states like Wisconsin, Florida and Texas proposed legislation that would prevent social media platforms from banning users from holding a specific viewpoint or censoring them.

So is suspending someone for spreading misinformation censorship? In the most literal definition of the word, sure. But are anyone’s First Amendment rights in active danger when they receive the boot from Twitter? Absolutely not. Social media platforms are not obligated to play host to disingenuous information, and, as stated, the First Amendment only protects suppression from the government.

Courtenay Daum, a political science professor at Colorado State University, expressed a similar sentiment.

“I think one can reasonably argue that this is censorship in the sense that the word censor means to suppress or prohibit, and social media companies are taking action to suppress and prohibit some content, but all forms of censorship are not First Amendment violations,” Daum said.

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Daum went on to say that no one’s First Amendment rights are violated when they are suspended or banned from social media. Twitter is not an agent of the state or federal government. It has its own rules for its platform, and when people use it in a way that isn’t in accordance with these rules, Twitter can punish them as they see fit.

Unfortunately for Trump and other exiled denizens of the web, the First Amendment doesn’t allow them to run amok on social media platforms, and to force Twitter and Facebook to bend their policies to allow such egregious behavior is rather Draconian, or harsh. Those who wish to share their unhinged conspiracy theories can do so elsewhere.

Reach Nathaniel McKissick at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @NateMcKissick.