Platforms, Power, and the Public Interest

By Ashley Boyd | May 29, 2020 | Advocacy

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This week was an especially tragic chapter during an already challenging time in the U.S. We saw the grim milestone of more than 100,000 American fatalities from the COVID-19 pandemic. Amidst this grim setting, George Floyd was senselessly killed at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Over the weekend, a white dog owner in Central Park called the police to falsely accuse an African-American man of threatening her life. These events were all recorded, shared and debated on social media platforms.

These events have reminded me why social media platforms matter — and why their independence and integrity is worth fighting for. Social media wasn’t able to prevent these devastating events, but they enabled us to seek justice by letting millions of people see unedited footage of what actually happened nearly instantaneously. With simply a phone in hand and platform to share, people had the power to film a murder at the hands of police, share scientific information about COVID and protect their health, and document a common injustice that has long been ignored. As we’ve seen many times in recent decades, social media — and an open internet more broadly — have the potential to rebalance power in important and potent ways.

We’ve also seen that social media platforms are messy and chaotic. Yes, they can facilitate free speech in ways that fuel our democracies and lift up the level of public debate. But, for exactly the same reasons, these platforms become a channel for disinformation that points people in harmful directions and chips away at our democratic fabric. Social media companies face an incredibly complex challenge in their efforts to balance free speech with ensuring that facts and decency remain central to the discourse on their platforms.

We saw this side of the internet — the tension between free speech and disinformation — in the news this week as well. Twitter labeled President Trump’s tweet about the election as potentially misleading and determined his tweet about protesters in Minneapolis violated their Terms of Service on glorifying violence. In doing this, they were enforcing their own rules as part of the tricky job of keeping their platform safe.

The response in reaction was notably swift and severe. Two days after Twitter labeled Trump’s election tweet, Trump issued an Executive Order calling on federal agencies to take steps to change how social media sites and search engines are regulated. It’s hard not to think that this is a response to content moderation decisions that the President didn’t like — and that it is not the right way to create a better internet or social media environment.

Social media users have legitimate concerns and demands of the platforms. Mozilla does too. Balancing free speech and fact-based discourse is tricky — and it’s also something the platforms need to continue to get better at. However, no one person — even the President — should have their personal opinions define how we strike this tricky balance. It’s something we need to sort through deliberately and collectively over time, with the public’s interest our ultimate goal.

Looking back at this week and mourning the death of George Floyd, I’m more committed than ever to ensuring the internet, and social media tools, remain tools to empower people and communities.

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