Modern reliance on technology has never been more evident than now. During the COVID-19 pandemic, modern technological advances have gone from conveniences to life-saving resources.
But not for everyone.
For people banned from tech platforms, the potential emergency resources these platforms provide are out of reach. Banned from Twitter? Reduced access to breaking news. Banned from Uber Eats? Good luck getting food while maintaining social distancing recommendations. Banned from PayPal, Venmo, or GoFundMe? Sending, receiving, and raising money for emergencies becomes a lot harder. Banned from Facebook? Find another way to connect with loved ones during this difficult time. This is the reality for people whose political speech runs afoul of tech censors or who have been targeted by powerful groups for having the “wrong” political beliefs.
Groups like the SPLC, Color of Change, SumofUs, and Sleeping Giants gleefully try to get their political opponents banned from social media and cut off from payment processors. Tech companies are pressured by advocacy organizations and agenda-driven journalists.
When trying to get a “wrongthinker” kicked off social media or cut off from funding sources, organizations, journalists, and companies claim they’re helping people take a moral stand against bigotry. When Laura Loomer was banned from PayPal, the company told Newsweek: “Our decision and actions are values-based, not political.”
However, the people pushing these bans, and enacting them, have trouble explaining exactly how it is moral to limit some people’s access to food because their opinions fall outside the mainstream. How is it moral to cut people off from their support systems—from their friends, families, and neighbors—because they say things some people find offensive? How is it moral to take away peoples’ ability to pay their bills because their political views are on the fringe of current accepted norms?
In reality, these moves are meant to silence and punish politically unpopular opinions. This precedent creates a chilling effect on free speech. People have a right to say controversial, offensive, and even hateful things. American companies should realize now, more than ever, that they should not suppress the free exchange of thoughts and feelings, nor the exchange of resources, for expressing constitutionally protected speech.
There’s no question these are not normal times, but neither are the companies doing the banning merely private companies.
At a press conference, President Trump promoted a Google website to determine whether people should seek medical treatment for coronavirus. The website was created by Verily, a sister company to Google, under the umbrella of Alphabet—but a Google log in is apparently required. Meanwhile, Google fires engineers over their opinions, bans people from YouTube, refuses to allow certain ads to run, and, in extreme instances, and bans entire Google accounts. The White House has also partnered with Apple to create an app to track coronavirus information. At the same time, Apple bans apps from their app store, removes controversial podcasts, and blocks consumers from viewing chat messages that might contain offensive information.
Twitter, a platform relied on for breaking information and used by government officials and government services, removed a tweet from The Federalist after it shared an opinion piece about the best way to handle the coronavirus epidemic. Twitter also removed tweets by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani for allegedly violating Twitter’s new rules about discussing the coronavirus outbreak.
In January, remember, the World Health Organization posted on Twitter that China found no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. That has been proven to be an utter lie, but the tweet still remains online. So do tweets claiming the virus originated in the United States and blaming American military for spreading the virus to China.
The coronavirus epidemic is causing people across the world to reevaluate their principles. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the role large companies play in policing perfectly legal—although sometimes controversial—speech. And perhaps it’s time for American companies to uphold the spirit of the First Amendment, especially when lives are at stake.