With all of the excitement and people up in arms about Facebook and other social media giants removing people from their platforms, the general public has jumped up crying “censorship!! First amendment!!” to which the regular response thus far has been “Facebook is a private company, they can do as they please” or other such arguments. Today on Bad Arguments I’m going to walk through why this statement, while valid, doesn’t quite work as a counter-argument in this instance.
I need to start off by explaining the validity of this counter-argument before I break down its faults. Saying that Facebook (or other platforms) is a private company is factually correct. Facebook isn’t a public space in the sense that a park is. It’s more like a swap-meet where tons of different users come to private property to trade and the host makes their money off of the business of others. In the case of social media, the companies make their money off of the content that we as users generate and swap between each other. Just the same, in their role as host they also hold the right to allow and remove people as they see fit. Most platforms use their internal Terms of Service as the guideline, but even without them, they would still hold control over who is and isn’t allowed on their property. A private company choosing not to allow you on their property isn’t a first amendment issue as that’s only applicable if the government is the one attempting to censor you.
With that all said, this argument doesn’t really counter the complaint that’s being made. Simply saying that a private company has the right to remove content as they see fit doesn’t change that it’s still a form of censorship. The hosts are still removing what they view as unsavory content from the public eye. What needs to be remembered here though is that these platform hosts are also businesses. As such, they are subject to market forces. This type of argument is similar to the one I highlighted in Bad Arguments 15 where it’s premise is right, but it misses the mark.
Decrying companies for their practices and actions and either leaving the platform or changing the way you do business with them is an important aspect of capitalism and markets. If you don’t like how a business operates, you let them know. If the bulk of their customers have an issue with the way they operate then their hand will generally be forced. Now in the case of social media, it’s a little more complicated than that. You may not like facebook, but if you do business online it’s hard to justify completely leaving a platform with over a billion users that you could reach. For some, leaving the platform entirely is an option, but there are others still available for those that stay.
One such option is to stop giving them money. Ask to remove every ad that comes your way, vote no in every survey that pops up (or ignore them entirely), and if you run a page stop boosting posts entirely. As a private company, they are ultimately at the whim of their customers, and their stocks have shown people’s displeasure at their platform. While hard to imagine, it’s not impossible for them to go the way of myspace and become little more than a historical relic of the internet.
My point with this is that simply saying that it’s a private company doesn’t excuse the actions of the companies. It would be like saying that Nike was more than allowed to run sweatshops because they were a private company and that was their choice. Sure, as a private company they could, but that doesn’t mean that the general public isn’t allowed to respond in turn, nor does it mean that people need to accept it. Just as these platforms are free to remove who they’d like, the users are free to respond as they’d like. It’s this principle that makes markets work.
Next time you see someone try to defend the actions of these platforms by simply stating that they are private companies feel free to remind them how little that statement means. After all, you’re a private citizen, you can do as you please.
You can read more from Killian Hobbs on Think Liberty here.