Social media has become a primary source for people to share the freedom of expression on a global scale. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.
Social media platforms have been renowned for silencing or banning users based on certain behavioral guidelines that are indicative of violating said platform’s user agreement policies.
This places an ethical dilemma on what should and should not be said or allowed to be said through social media, based upon the intended purpose of the information that was delivered by the user. I strongly believe all users of social media should fall under the Rule Utilitarianism theory of ethics regarding freedom of expression, and more specifically; that freedom of expression should not be an absolute right on private social media platforms. In this paper I will be using Twitter as the example social media platform and how ethical theories pose a relation to why some content or users may be restricted from displaying certain information, and whether the right to freedom of expression should or should not be protected within a private media enterprise based on the practicing of these theories.
I will also be discussing my reasoning why the Rule utilitarianism theory poses the best practice to my reasoning behind this ethical dilemma.
To understand the ethical theories to be discussed in relation to this topic, we must first understand what how Twitter bases its allowance and dis-allowance of information on its platform in the United States.
The sections under user terms of service state “You are responsible for your use of the Services and for any Content you provide, including compliance with applicable laws, rules, and regulations”, That is; to follow the U.S. laws regarding content you post. This includes copyright or trademark violations, impersonation, unlawful conduct, or harassment.
Twitter also includes a rules and regulations section specifically for its user usage. These rules are explicit and Identify the different categories of actions Twitter may take to enforce them. They include requiring content to be deleted before new content can be posted, account verification, permanently suspending accounts, and new account suspension if permanently banned previously. Different rules that are regulated include Intellectual Property (trademarks or copyrights), Graphic violence or adult content, certain trends, third party advertising, misuse of twitter badges or usernames, abusive behavior, violence or physical harm, abuse and hateful conduct, personally identifiable information, and spam or security (tampering, phishing). As mentioned previously, these rules are explicit and are to be read and accepted by each user before having access to Twitters platform, thus allowing the premise that all users understand these rules and abide by them. Now that we understand these rules and regulations we can use ethical theories and an example situation of the revoking of freedom of expression on Twitter to identify the just or unjust or the revoking thereof, remembering that all of these terms of usage were agreed upon by the user.
Alex Jones, a right-wing provocateur and creator of the conspiracy theorist website Infowars, was banned previously on August 14th, 2018 for violating policies of inciting violence. According to the New York Times, Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, said Mr. Jones’s posts had not violated the company’s policies. That prompted criticism, since Mr. Jones has regularly spread lies, including that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. Jones later then posted comments that appeared to promote violence stating to his supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against antifa, the mainstream media, and “Chicom operatives”, which landed him getting banned for seven days. Jones returned to Twitter afterwards, continuing to post comments violating the same policies. This landed him to be permanently banned from the social platform on September 6th, 2018. Jones has been renowned for stating things that were offensive to people in the past, but this raises the question, does he have the right to say what he wishes as per freedom of expression? I will use the different ethical theories and base my opinion on whether the theory can be used to justify freedom of expression on Twitter.
Kantianism is an ethical theory focused on the belief that a good will is good in and of itself. should a good will fall short and cause harm; the good will behind the effort is still good. Kantianism uses a categorical imperative for the way will is commanded for morality, which is an unconditional rule that should be applied regardless of the circumstances. This Ethical theory cannot be used to answer the question at hand
The first formulation of Kantianism states to ‘act only from moral rules that you can at the same time, will to be universal moral laws’, meaning if there is an action you wish to take, make sure you would want someone else in a similar situation to take that action. If you feel the actions you are taking could not be the will of others given your situation, then the actions are wrong. Alex jones shared information on twitter that violated Twitters rules of what can/cannot be said yes, but Kantianism in this instance cannot provide evidence to backup why freedom of expression should not be given in this situation. For example, Jones imposed violent actions against antifa, the mainstream media, and “Chicom operatives”. Under the categorical imperative; if everyone imposed violent actions based on opinions, this would not be a good will. However, a problem arises with this theory. Let’s say Jones will was granted, everyone imposed violent actions against these regimes. If another entity imposed the same actions against a regime that Jones supported, he would not want that entity to have the same unconditional rule, thus busting this section of Kantianism based on the first formulation imperative of reversing roles.
The second formulation of Kantianism states to not use anyone as a means to an end. Alex jones used Twitter in this instance, because he implicitly knew he was breaking their code of rules and terms to deliver content. Meaning, he used twitters platform in such a way that it was not supposed to be used to get his point across. The problem with this theory in a stance against Jones’s freedom of expression is that both perfect and imperfect duties are utilized by Twitter in different situations. For instance, it is always the perfect duty of all users to follow the usage rules of Twitter. However, Twitter uses its own set of imperfect duties regarding enforcement. Since Jones has more publicity; things that appear to insight violence may be removed. If Jones had little publicity or none, then some of the same things he imposed may be overlooked.
Utilitarianism holds the premise that an action is wrong if the overall happiness of the parties effected is decreased, or right if it is increased. Act Utilitarianism is where an action is good if it produces more happiness than unhappiness for the effected parties. In the case of Jones and Twitter, Jones’s posts are considered wrong, as are twitters decisions to act against Jones. Jones’s audience could include the entire population of twitter, thus the net happiness of inciting violent actions against others would be more negative to most of the population (most wouldn’t agree with this). However, Twitters actions would also be wrong in this stance, considering the audience effected would be those who give Jones publicity or those who would view Jones’s posts. Since the majority of those who would see these posts would more likely be in support of Jones (due to Twitters trending policy), the overall net happiness ratio would most likely become negative. Since both sides of the argument are negative, this ethical theory could not work regarding allowing or suppressing Jones.
Rule Utilitarianism – adopt moral rules that if followed by everyone, it would lead to the greatest increase in total happiness over all affected parties. rule utilitarianism states apply principle of utility to moral rules, not individual moral actions. A Rule Utilitarian chooses to follow a moral rule because of its universal interest in greatest net increase of happiness, while Kantianism follows the rule of categorical imperative. a rule utilitarian is focused on the consequences of an action taken while Kantians are focus on the moral will motivating the action (whether the person believes it to be good or bad). Rule utilitarianism fixes the problem of individual action on Act Utilitarianism.
For instance, the rules behind Twitter are to be universal for those who use it. The premise behind this is to enable the freedom of expression, but in the sense that everyone follows a code of what not to say on the platform. If everyone follows the specific rules of twitter, then the overall greater happiness level is higher than lower. Jones violated this rule, and regardless of the effected parties; the rule was already set in place to provide a constant positive happiness level, thus following with consequences of being banned.
Kantianism didn’t work because in this ethical theory, Jones’s actions could have been seen in a positive moral stance. This would’ve given all who use twitter the allowance of breaking their rules regardless of their posts, if the moral will behind it was positive. Rule Utilitarianism fixes this. Act Utilitarianism didn’t work due to the broad spectrum of whether Jones’s post of twitters banning was more negative/positive. If both happen to have a more positive outcome or both have a negative outcome; the theory cancels itself out. Rule utilitarianism fixes this as well.
Since Rule Utilitarianism solves the issues of both Kantianism and Act Utilitarianism given these situations; I believe it is the proper response to base freedom of expression on twitter. Since there are policies in place and each user must explicitly agree to them; freedom of expression should be placed at the discretion of whether the user followed Twitters rules, thus not guaranteeing freedom of expression if the rules are broken.