Is Deplatforming a Form of “Freedom of Association”?

Many people are critical of social media sites banning the president for the events of last week.

Critics span the political divide, ranging from those who see this as an assault on free speech to those uneasy at the prospects of tech companies, Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey deciding what people can or can’t say. Though I’m sympathetic to some critiques of the ban, I think they highlight some glaring contradictions.

We live in a society where the market is sanctified. We’re terrified of government bigger than a cow, but allow corporations to grow the size of megalodons; companies too big, wealthy and powerful to fail. And then when the market makes a decision to moderate itself, we are reactively fearful of bigness and centralized power, shocked to realize that the market’s wisdom isn’t so grand.

Debates about free speech versus censorship often become trapdoors leading to slippery slopes. Absent of any analysis of power dynamics, free speech fundamentalism becomes a defense of hegemony — like saying if someone yells at you and interrupts you every time you try to speak, it’s fine because they are “technically” within their rights. Our laws and government treating Donald Trump like any other citizen is the right thing to do. A social media platform treating his speech like anyone else’s seems, with all due respect, absurd.

Though I’m speculating here, I also wonder if we should look at social media moderation or deplatforming through the lens of freedom of association. What if we looked at them as a social media platform’s ability to decide what kind of community it would like to construct; to have a criteria upon which to accept or decline membership into that community.

If a brand can sever sponsorship of a celebrity mired in a sexual assault scandal, why can’t social media distance themselves from conspiracy theorists, doxxers, extremists, even presidents who incite insurrection? What if a church couldn’t ban someone who came every Sunday and demanded that the pastor debate him on whether or not Jesus is real? Can’t each of us decide who is and isn’t welcome inside of our house?

Punitive moderation can be understood as a breach of contract, whether more literal like community standards or terms of agreement, or more figuratively, like social contracts. As Will Oremus wrote, “A platform for all ideas implies a platform with no standards.” If we focus squarely on speech issues, are we suggesting that in order to preserve unfettered speech at all costs, platforms must have no standards and cannot define their communities (which in and of itself is a kind of compelled speech)?

There are issues within my suggested framing. To be fair, while speech and association have distinct qualities, I’m not sure they can be disentangled. And there is an ever-present paradox embedded in expression as a right — the right of one can impose on the right of another; that speech and censorship can be both enemies and twins. The two are linked in ways we don’t like to examine because they make things more, not less, complicated.

My deepest concern is that we aren’t honest about the extent to which free speech does not put all other values into suspended animation. Seeing the issue through a slightly different lens won’t erase the paradoxes and contradictions, but maybe it can provide a framework where other values are more salient.

At heart, what I’m asking is: can social media companies decide who they associate themselves with?

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