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Should Bad Ideas Be Banned from Social Media?

September 12, 2018

(image via wikimedia)

Years ago, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were promoted as community builders with a purpose of bringing people together.  Yeah, we laugh about that now, but that’s how it was.

Soon, it became clear that data collection was a huge part of social media platforms, and most people seemed to be okay with it.  After all, if you didn’t want your data collected, you didn’t have to use the services.  Now it looks like the platforms are deciding what ideas are acceptable and what ideas aren’t.  In some cases, social media platforms are banning users from these platforms altogether because of those users’ words and ideas.

Next week, the American Library Association is promoting Banned Book Week.  Despite what the name might suggest, Banned Book Week is about NOT banning books.  That’s the whole point.  The ALA promotes books that have been banned in the past.  The ALA thinks banning books is bad.  Books have been banned in the past because of words.  Books have been banned because of ideas.

Books don’t get banned much anymore because it is now established that banning books is bad.  Whenever a community tries to keep a book out of its school or community library, the rest of the country mocks that community for its backwards thinking.  It’s pretty well established that book banning doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to.

Now it’s social media that bans ideas.  I don’t want ideas banned in books or social media, not even bad ideas.  The whole point of free expression is for people to figure out for themselves what ideas are good and what ideas are bad.  It seems that instead of mocking social media for banning ideas, people (usually called outrage mobs) encourage it.

I’m intentionally being vague about which words and ideas have been banned from social media because once you get specific, people start lecturing me about why the bad word, idea, or person is bad.  I understand that already.  I’m talking about the principal involved.

I’m over 50 years old.  I’ve gotten my college degree and have been working for over 30 years.  I don’t need an algorithm and some 30-year-olds deciding for me what ideas are safe and which are dangerous.  I admit, I shouldn’t even mention age.  I don’t even need any 70-year-olds keeping me safe from ideas either.

Since I’m over 50, I’ve had a lot of bad ideas and said a lot of stupid things in my life.  Sometimes I’ve even been told to my face that what I’ve said is stupid.  I didn’t like being contradicted in public (nobody likes it), but I’ve also learned from it.  I’ve reshaped my own ideas from arguing things out, hearing other people, and deciding which of their ideas are stupid and which ones made sense.  Arguing is like a rough draft for thinking.  You have to get through the garbage to find the stuff worth keeping.

When social media bans people for saying controversial things, offensive things, or stupid things, it keeps adults from making the decisions for themselves.  That might be okay in totalitarian countries, but it shouldn’t be okay in the United States.

I know social media platforms are run by companies/corporations that (to some extent) can make their own rules, and I believe in that too.  My issue is that these entities aren’t being clear in their terms of service what their policies are.  As a platform user, I’ve read the rules and have seen lots of vague terms that can be (and probably are) enforced arbitrarily.  I’m not sure shareholders (and various legal systems) appreciate unequal enforcement of rules.

I admit, some of my concern is selfish.  I’m putting more content on different platforms now, and I’d like to know the rules.  I’ve seen people lose content or get banned for silly offenses.  One guy got suspended from a platform because he wrote a metaphor that was taken literally by an outrage mob (Whoops!  That’s almost a specific example!).  The outrage mob was probably just one person with a bunch of fake accounts, but it can still look like a lot of outrage, and it got the guy suspended.

I’m not worried about me getting banned or suspended (yet).  My writing/content is fairly benign.  I don’t go out of my way to provoke people’s emotions or stir things up.  But I like to read that kind of stuff.  And I don’t want somebody else deciding what ideas I can see.  If social media platforms are going to continue shutting users down, I want them to be up front about why.  What exactly are we allowed say?  What exactly can we NOT say?  Will these rules be enforced on everybody or just the unpopular users?

Maybe it’s just me, but banning ideas seems to be the work of control freaks.  When I was a kid, the social control freaks tried to ban certain books and certain music.  They couldn’t ban much, but they got ratings.  Those control freaks from 20-30 years ago gave us those ratings systems that encourage kids to buy mature stuff.  Now a new generation of control freaks has gained control of social media.  And I don’t think ratings will be enough for them this time.

*****

Enough about me!  What do you think?  Should social media platforms ban users for unpopular (but legal) words and ideas?  Why or why not?

10 Comments
  1. Freedom of speech and thought are basic to a democratic society. I agree with you entirely. Thank you for this thought-provoking post… I’ve shared it on my Facebook page. ~Karin Weiss

    • “Freedom of speech and thought are basic to a democratic society.”

      True, but I’m not sure the people running these platforms see them as part of a democratic society.

  2. I think that Twitter, especially, encourages mob mentality so that ‘bad’ ideas take on far more significance than they would in the real world but we all have to take responsibility for our words and actions – it is not for a third party to decide what is acceptable or not. Really interesting and thought provoking post :O) x

    • Yeah, Twitter is a tough venue to discuss serious issues because even a good idea can sound bad when you use too few words (and then you get banned for the “bad” idea).

      Plus, there are a lot of people who take metaphors literally.

      • Yes, you’re right and that’s exactly why I’ve pretty much abandoned my account with Twitter – far too depressing ;O)

  3. Banning bad ideas? What’s next, banning James Patterson from bookstores?!

  4. We have known for centuries that exposure to pathogens strengthens the immune system. The analogy holds with speech and ideas too. Rather than avoiding what offends us, we need to build up our resistance by exposure. That doesn’t means we should wallow in the unhealthy, that neither works for germs nor corrupt ideas, but it is equally unhealthy to try to live in a sterile environment.

    • “We have known for centuries that exposure to pathogens strengthens the immune system. The analogy holds with speech and ideas too. Rather than avoiding what offends us, we need to build up our resistance by exposure.” –

      Ha! If you had written this on Twitter, the outrage mob might have said: “YOU JUST WANT EVERYBODY TO GET SICK AND DIE!! DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT!!”

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