By Lemuel Sapian
In the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of then-incumbent President Donald J. Trump, a series of major moves were made by the social media giants, known colloquially as “Big Tech,” to counter what was felt had instigated and inspired the attack on America’s center of democracy.
President Trump’s Twitter account was shut down, and he was banned permanently from the platform. Supporters of Trump had transitioned over to the social media platform Parler, which was also shuttered using their hosting service, Amazon Web Services, declining to provide them service. Facebook and Twitter, among other social media services, have suggested that their censoring activities have been only concerning violations of their community standards.
Expectedly, these actions were met with criticism from the public, citing harms to free speech. On the other side of the debate was the argument that social media companies were not government entities and should be free to enforce any standard. The President and political allies’ supporters were naturally upset that platforms they used for online social interaction had been shut down and that the prominent Big Tech companies overused, in their perspective, censorship tools such as “fact checks.”
The guarantee of Free Speech exists next to the religious freedom guarantees in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. These rights often intersect, as the ability to speak according to one’s conscience is innate to almost any conscientious belief system in existence. To apply restrictions to speech would also be applying restrictions to the exercise of religion.
We have to take note that the freedoms designated in the Constitution for speech and religious exercise are not absolute; freedom of speech has boundaries with regards to “clear and present danger” and “imminent lawless action” where speech incites immediate danger to life and limb, just as religious free exercise does not allow religious adherents to a cult that believes in child sacrifice to carry out that aspect of their religion.
These boundaries are not the only things that complicate the matter, as there is growing corporate power. Big Tech companies have grown into virtual monopolies, especially Facebook and Twitter, which account for the overwhelmingly vast majority of the worldwide social media market. Recently, political conservatives in the United States have turned to other social media alternatives such as Parler and MeWe. They claim a growing bias against their views on the major platforms.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 becomes even more pertinent now more than ever, with a heated debate growing over the issues surrounding free speech and censorship and the Act’s removal of liability for information content providers in third party speech and speech regulation. Both former President Trump and current President Biden have been critical of Section 230 as they feel it gives too much power to Big Tech in the advancing age of digital information.
With Apple, Google, and Amazon declining to service Parler, this feeds into concerns of growing disenfranchisement of the conservative political establishment. So, society is now caught in a “Catch-22” where conservative free-market traditions run into the liberal anti-establishment culture, and it ends up being flipped on its head. Already, comparisons are being made to the local baker and whether he should have the option to decline services to a subset of society. He cannot conscientiously serve out of the belief he would be endorsing their lifestyles. It seems surreal to see political liberals defend free-market policies and political conservatives criticize corporate America, but this is the nature of politics today.
Whatever side you support in this debate, this is an issue that all defenders of liberty must continue to monitor and observe as it will have far-reaching implications that will affect everyone, especially in the area of religious liberty.
Lemuel Sapian earned his Bachelor of Arts in History degree from the University of North Texas and currently studies for the ministry. He is a 3rd generation Seventh-day Adventist, an author, and comes from the state of Texas. He is married with four children. He has written the book, Not of This World: Religious Liberty for All as a Key Christian and American Value to underscore the importance of religious freedom for all from a Christian and American perspective using the Bible and history. His website is www.lemuelsapian.com.