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April 14 2018

'Diamond & Silk' offer chance for bipartisan push back on social media censorship

via The Hill
by Patrice Lee Onwuka

Diamond and Silk are the biggest free-speech heroes to emerge from Facebook's congressional hearings this week. These two black women should be rallied behind as they put a compelling face on political censorship on social media.

Yet, black lawmakers and social justice leaders are holding their tongues. If these ladies were progressives, the ire over their mistreatment would be deafening. It's a shame that because they are conservatives — and ardent Trump supporters — all they get is silence from the black community.

At this week's hearing, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “Why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond & Silk? That is ludicrous. They hold conservative views. That isn't ‘unsafe.’” Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Steve Scalise (R-La.) joined Barton in their outrage.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) brought their plight to Zuckerberg's attention during Tuesday's Senate hearing as he questioned the Facebook head on the "pervasive pattern of political bias" against conservatives. Cruz only scratched the surface of documented cases.

Zuckerberg probably didn't expect to be peppered with questions about the two North Carolina sisters who boast a following of 1.3 million Facebook users. The duo came to fame as supporters of then-candidate Trump and have continued to come to his defense with viral videos and commentary. They recently revealed that Facebook deemed their content "unsafe for its community" and had blocked their content. (Zuckerberg later admitted the company made a mistake in their case.)

This was an opportunity for a unified response from Congress to push back on the weaponization of social media. Americans would have been in full support.

Nearly two out of three (61 percent) of Americans think social media websites should allow free speech without interference, according to a recent Rasmussen poll. Democrats are less likely than Republicans and unaffiliated Americans to support free speech on social media sites, but a majority (55 percent) of Democrats still approve of unregulated speech on such sites.

Only conservative members came to Diamond and Silk's defense and made political censorship an issue for Facebook to address. Yet, political thought isn't the only form of censorship that concerns civic leaders about social media platforms.

Although, they avoided Diamond and Silk's example altogether, Congressional Black Caucus members Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) questioned Zuckerberg about bias in the treatment of content generated by blacks.

Social justice leaders claim social media companies limit their speech by removing images, videos, and posts. A Medium post highlights some examples of black activists who have been banned for their free speech.

In 2016, a coalition of over 40 left-leaning groups called on Zuckerberg to "ensure that Facebook implements an anticensorship policy that honors and respects Black lives." In 2017, over 70 social justice groups wrote to Zuckerberg again calling out the "consistent and disproportionate censorship of Facebook users of color." They recommended changes "to protect the free speech and human rights of Facebook’s most vulnerable users."

The Congressional Black Caucus missed an opportunity: Diamond and Silk sit at the intersection of two communities which both believe that they are working to make America better for everyone.

Conservatives and blacks both expect social media platforms like Facebook to be a place where they can share their ideas. These groups could be allies in seeking greater objectivity from social media websites by taking a principled position on freedom of speech.

The lesson for everyone is that Facebook is a private entity — not a true public square. The company can set and enforce its policies about the content shared on its platform at any time and in any way it chooses. Any user rights are determined by its terms and conditions, not the Constitution of the United States.

However, even if Facebook is free to discriminate against conservatives and political speakers like Diamond and Silk, if they want to be true to the principle that it is "a platform for all ideas," then the company would be wise to listen to these concerns. But there's no guarantee that Facebook will or can implement any changes that remove biases on their platforms, especially since Mr. Zuckerberg didn't seem to think there is much of a problem.

That is why we would benefit from greater competition in the social media space. Conservatives, blacks, or anyone else should be looking to take their content elsewhere. If there is enough interest and demand, new competitors will spring up to offer those looking to delete Facebook with a new place to go.

To ensure that competing social media platforms can emerge and thrive, Congress must be slow to adopt added regulations that could stifle competition or make it harder for startups to succeed.

If we want accountability from social media websites though, we should be principled about free speech and not allow politics to stand in the way.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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