Facebook Twitter

Conservatives & social media: Are free speech rights being violated?

As private media companies shut out radical rhetoric, some are crying foul. Is it a violation of free speech? Read about conservative social media backlash.

SHARE Conservatives & social media: Are free speech rights being violated?
Home screen of Parler, a conservative Twitter alternative, which was suspended by AWS following the riots on the Capitol.

The website of the social media platform Parler is displayed in Berlin on Jan. 10, 2021. The platform’s logo is on a screen in the background. The conservative-friendly social network Parler was booted off the internet Monday, Jan. 11, over ties to last week’s siege on the U.S. Capitol, but not before hackers made off with an archive of its posts, including any that might have helped organize or document the riot.

Christophe Gateau, Associated Press

In the wake of last week’s deadly riot and the storming of the U.S. Capitol building, private media companies have begun drawing a harder line on what and who is and isn’t acceptable on their platforms.

Conservatives have decried the media companies’ actions as censorship and “Orwellian,” but media experts point out that private companies are allowed to manage their own businesses and that the First Amendment only applies to the government’s infringement of speech.

The social media application Parler, which has served as a go-to alternative to Twitter for supporters of President Donald Trump, was suspended by website hosting service Amazon Web Services, according to BuzzFeed News, which reported that Amazon suspended the app for breaking its terms of service.

“The app has recently been overrun with death threats, celebrations of violence, and posts encouraging ‘Patriots’ to march on Washington, D.C., with weapons on Jan. 19, the day before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden,” BuzzFeed reported.

Apple and Google had already removed Parler from their application stores, The New York Times reported, saying Parler “had not sufficiently policed its users’ posts, allowing too many that encouraged violence and crime.”

Parler has since filed a lawsuit against Amazon Web Services, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Talk radio giant Cumulus Media, and its syndicated programming branch Westwood One, “has told its on-air personalities to stop suggesting that the election was stolen from Trump — or else face termination,” The Washington Post reported. Cumulus hosts right-wing radio hosts, like Mark Levin and Dan Bongino, who “have amplified Trump’s lies that the vote was ‘rigged’ or in some way fraudulent,” according to the Post.

The day after the riot, Facebook “indefinitely” banned Trump’s profile through at least Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

On Friday, Twitter banned Trump’s account — the president’s preferred means of reaching out to supporters and politicians — because of the “risk of further incitement of violence.”

The crackdown by media companies hasn’t only come from digital and audio platforms.

Book publisher Simon & Schuster canceled Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley’s book contract, citing the senator’s role in Wednesday’s “dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.” Hawley was a leader among congressional Republicans who objected to Biden’s Electoral College victory and reportedly encouraged those who stormed the Capitol complex.

“After witnessing the disturbing, deadly insurrection that took place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Simon & Schuster has decided to cancel publication of Senator Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book, THE TYRANNY OF BIG TECH,” a Thursday statement from Simon & Schuster read. “We did not come to this decision lightly.”

Republicans react to social media backlash

“This could not be more Orwellian,” Hawley said in his statement about the canceled book deal.

The senator went on to say it was “direct assault on the First Amendment” and that “only approved speech can now be published.”

“We’ll see you in court,” he added.

Simon & Schuster has in the past published books by right-wing pundits like Fox News’ Sean Hannity and conservative radio host Glenn Beck — both who still have active author pages on Simon & Schuster’s website.

“1984.,” posted Charlie Kirk — the president and founder of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA — on Twitter — referring to the George Orwell classic novel on the dangers of totalitarianism and technology — and echoing Hawley’s “Orwellian” description.

Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan — an outspoken Trump supporter — said of the media crackdown on Monday: “First, Democrats support government shutting down small business during (COVID-19). Now, Democrats support big business shutting down their competition.”

On his podcast Monday, Beck pushed a conspiracy of a “profound technological change,” something he said he’d warned listeners about four years ago.

“I told you at the time, high tech will need the government and the government will need high tech. And they will work together to preserve their power and their position. This is what’s happening today,” Beck said.

Fox’s Hannity called Parler the “latest victim in big tech’s sweeping shutdown.”

In Parler’s legal complaint, the social media platform alleges that Amazon kicked them off the web hosting service for “political and anti-competitive reasons” and that Amazon breached their contract with the app, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Censoring social media content is not a First Amendment issue

But media companies aren’t breaking the law or infringing on First Amendment rights when they make the decision to ban or censor content on their platforms, according to media experts and researchers.

“As the Congressional Research Service has explained in a report for federal lawmakers and their staffs, lawsuits predicated on a website’s decision to remove content largely fail. That’s because the free speech protections set out in the First Amendment generally apply only to when a person is harmed by an action of the government,” The Associated Press reported.

In a Sunday interview on CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Chris Krebs, former director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said social media censorship isn’t a free speech issue.

“The First Amendment doesn’t apply to private sector organizations. That’s not how this works,” Krebs told CBS’ Margaret Brennan. “That’s government impeding speech and the ability to hear. And that’s not what’s happening here.”

Krebs, who oversaw election cybersecurity, was fired by Trump after the 2020 election for disputing the president’s claims of election fraud, according to the AP.

“These are companies that have their own ability to enforce their standards and their policies,” he added.

Also, Trump’s supporters haven’t been totally silenced on digital media. The New York Times reported that other apps and message boards like Telegram, Gab and Signal are still active and have served as additional platforms for the president’s allies to organize future rallies.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a senior editor at thelibertarian magazine Reason, wrote Monday that Parler was a “tech scapegoat for last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol.”

“Plenty of digital platforms — including those much bigger and more mainstream than Parler — provide a place for conspiracy theorists, MAGA riot organizers, and threats of violence, as well as the politicians who back and encourage these forces,” she writes. And that only taking such swift action against Parler, and only that app, “feels like the Amazon/Apple/Google version of Twitter and Facebook suddenly banning Trump’s accounts and deleting his post history.”