In 2011, police in London UK shot Mark Duggan. For nearly seven days after the shooting, riots raged in the streets resulting in five deaths, hundreds of injuries, and untold property damage. In the days following the riots, the role social media played in encouraging the rioters was heavily scrutinized. Since then, in the US, we’ve seen similar incidents in Albuquerque, Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, and most recently Berkeley. In each of these places social media was the primary mode of communication for rioters. This, combined with the new focus on “fake news” begs the question; do social media platforms now have a social responsibility to ensure they are not being used to commit crimes?
For the most part social media has been protected from scrutiny due to its assumed role as a platform for free speech and social justice. Afterall, you can’t have a legitimate social justice platform if the content is controlled by racist, patriarchal, and/or oppressive ideals manifested in the form of corporate control. This adherence to free speech and social justice gave way however to the rise of “fake news.” Afterall, free speech applies to everyone, right?
Alas, therein lies the rub.
It is all too easy today to label someone or something oppressive, white supremacist, or a manifestation of a patriarchal oligarchy. On social media, you can make those claims against someone and it is considered freedom of expression. Unfortunately, most of these “expressions” are made with little or no proof (see Jeff Sessions, for example). Twitter drew a line in the sand however and declared those expressions were not extended to the alt-right leading to the great binge purge (it makes sense…I promise). Twitter rid itself of alt-right accounts and alt-right tweeters. Also anything that smelled slightly right of center.
In Twitter’s defense, they claim they are trying to crack down on bullying and hate speech. In doing so however, they are making a de facto admission to having some level of responsibility for the content on their site. By extension, and through their own actions, they are also admitting that they share some level of responsibility for the behaviors stemming from the content on their site.
Should Twitter be actively monitoring events like the Milo speech looking for evidence of criminal conspiracy and or activity? If not, why not? If they know of users who are sharing tactics, targeting victims, and/or coordinating criminal acts should they shut them down and stop the crime? If they fail to act, why can’t people hold them liable for the damage? If the tables were turned, and Cenk Uygur was speaking while Skin Heads rampaged through a college campus, wouldn’t we expect Twitter to take steps to stop them? Would we expect them to finally cooperate with law enforcement?
I think we all the know the answer.