One of the most discussed topics in the world today is how much we can trust the sources of news around us. Fake news seems to be running rampant and it is obvious that we have to evaluate how much faith to put in what we read. That being said, the situation becomes considerably worse when several viewpoints on contemporary problems are removed from the conversation entirely, which seems to be becoming a common occurrence on social media sites. YouTube in particular has been repeatedly associated with this trend. Since its ascension to one of the premium sources for news and information, with viewers gaining information as per their own convenience and hearing different opinions on issues, it has fast been accepted as a stalwart of social media. It is no secret that YouTube has had several problems with content regulation in its 13-year lifespan, the most recent of these being the removal of advertisements from videos deemed ‘unsuitable for advertisers’, thereby preventing their creators from earning money in an event that has come to be known as the ‘YouTube Adpocalpyse’. It appears that YouTube is now going one step further, with the outright removal of several videos from the platform.
Since February, YouTube has been shutting down channels that talk about marijuana in any shape or form. Around the second week of May, the disappearance of several channels at once sent users into a panic. When they reached out to the company, YouTube provided arbitrary reasons for this, citing the violation of its community guidelines. However, the videos in question seem to be adhering to them, making their removal all the more questionable. Even channels such as Marijuana Televisión, a Spanish channel that focuses on medicinal use of marijuana and has no association with usage of the drug in a negative way, was struck down. Several content creators have spoken out against these arbitrary shutdowns.
A user by the name of Paul Joseph Watson uploaded a video critiquing the music video of Childish Gambino’s song, ‘This is America’, claiming that a social justice narrative that attempted to fit into the popular ‘black lives matter’ movement was propagated without paying heed to key facts that contradicted the narrative of the music video. YouTube blocked the video on the grounds that it contained ‘content that may be inappropriate or offensive’. It’s worth noting that the original music video never received a warning of any kind, and is going strong on YouTube with over 329 million views. Watson took to Twitter to announce that his video was blocked. While YouTube reinstated the video later, it raised questions on what kinds of videos YouTube censored.
In 2017, PragerU sued the company for supposedly censoring conservative videos, citing their rights to upload content under the First Amendment. However, the lawsuit went in favour of YouTube, with the judge ruling that YouTube did not operate as a ‘state actor’ that was subject to the First Amendment. The primary question that the court dealt with was whether private companies like YouTube fell under the ambit of the First Amendment. District Judge Lucy Koh cited LLyod Corp v Tanner, which held that a mall was allowed to prevent citizens from distributing handbills in its compound, as a precedent to make the decision, departing from the decision in Marsh v Alabama, in which an appellant was allowed to distribute religious texts in a privately-owned sector. It was further stated in the judgment that YouTube was not a ‘public forum’ for speech to be protected under the First Amendment.
Not classifying YouTube as a public forum is problematic, as in recent times, YouTube and other social media have been taken to be important mediums for the public to discuss and debate issues at large. This viewpoint has been echoed by the Supreme Court in the case of Packingham v North Carolina, where it observed that the relationship between the First Amendment and the Internet can no longer be considered static and that the courts could not arbitrarily ban people from using parts of the Internet. Social media sites have grown to be an integral part of people’s lives, and as such, constitute a ground for discussion on important topics. It is therefore, unreasonable to exclude them from being classified as public forums in lieu of their important stature in society in this day and age.
While it is true that companies like YouTube are privately owned companies that must protect their business interests and reputation, if the law gives them the ability to regulate content to the extent that they strike out information that is contrary to their views, they are essentially being given a free hand to establish a stringent set of rules as to what content is allowed on the site and what isn’t. One argument commonly tossed around is that if social media sites were considered to be public forums, then their own community guidelines function as violations of the First Amendment, as regulating what people say is the very antithesis of the purpose of the law. However, this argument is flawed for the sole reason that there needs to be regulation in its most basic form as to what is allowed on the site. This can include removal of hate speech, misleading or discriminatory information and other such malicious content. The removal of information should not be extended to respectful, well thought out opinions on contemporary issues.
George Washington once said, “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” While he may have said it within the context of the formation of a constitutional framework for America, his words ring true in contemporary times as well, as it is one of the most essential qualities of the modern age. Social media is a place where all of us can express whatever we want, and instead of unreasonable restrictions on what thoughts we can project, balanced regulation can be achieved at the most basic level. If opinions are stifled and one side of the debate is cut out, it leaves an unfinished picture, which can bring about conjecture and assumptions at the very least, and misconduct of the highest order at the worst.