Censorship? Disinformation? Defining some key terms in the social media debate

Companies like Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook, have said that some regulation of speech is necessary for the platforms to work properly.

Illustration of people with their mouths taped shut.
Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

While it may not always dominate the headlines, the debate over free speech in the U.S. remains at the forefront of our political conversation.

Much of this discussion has centered on social media. Companies like Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook, have said that some regulation of speech is necessary for the platforms to work properly. With no regulation at all, they argue, social media would be overrun with snake-oil health remedies, hate speech, threats and intimidation, and incitement to real-world violence.

Other companies founded as alternatives to the bigger platforms, such as former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social, quickly found that they, too, needed some form of “content moderation.”

When it comes to social media, few would argue that platforms should allow any and all content. Truth Social, for example, bans “all sexual content and explicit language,” which are not strictly prohibited on Twitter.

But Republicans charge that the big social media companies, such as Twitter, have engaged in a coordinated attempt to suppress conservative speech and amplify liberal voices.

These companies have faced calls to limit real-world dangers by constraining the spread of false information, and their efforts to do so have led to complaints of censorship.

Censorship has become a top political topic, a source of outrage and anger for many Americans. It has also become a powerful source of influence for media figures on both the left and right, whose audiences have grown as they have become known for challenging what their followers see as rigid orthodoxies.

One challenge in debating this topic is imprecise language. Words and phrases are often used as political weapons rather than as tools for understanding and illumination. Here are a few commonly used terms, an examination of how they are used and misused, and what they actually mean.


Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines the verb “to censor” as meaning “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable.”

The debate over censorship, when it comes to social media, often comes from the political right. The most recent example is the publication of a few internal documents from Twitter showing that certain conservative figures had their accounts set so that they could not appear on a “trending” list, or that made it harder to find their account in the search function. This is also sometimes called “shadow banning.”

These revelations in what has been called the “Twitter Files,” however, did not provide any context or details for why these accounts were placed on the “trends blacklist” or the “search blacklist.”

It is possible that the accounts were flagged for a violation of Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter said for years that it limited the reach of certain accounts if they violated the platform’s policies.

“Since at least 2018, Twitter’s help page has said, ‘When abuse or manipulation of our service is reported or detected, we may take action to limit the reach of a person’s tweets,’” wrote New York magazine’s Eric Levitz.

“Twitter also listed ‘Limiting tweet visibility’ as an enforcement option under the company’s terms of service, writing, ‘This makes content less visible on Twitter,’” Levitz noted.

In other words, it wasn’t a secret that Twitter sometimes made use of shadow banning. What’s still not known are the reasons for many of these decisions. The answer may be nefarious. It may also be innocuous.

Sometimes censorship and its problems are more obvious, however. Twitter’s decision to suppress a since-verified New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop for roughly one day, in the weeks before the 2020 election, was an obvious “mistake,” company officials have admitted.

Conservatives claim that those on the right have been targeted because of their political views, but so far evidence of such intentional political discrimination at Twitter has not been produced. Twitter conducted a study in 2021 showing that its algorithm was, unintentionally, “favoring the political right wing.”

Conservatives have scoffed at this, noting that Twitter employees have overwhelmingly made donations to Democratic politicians.

Some do not like the term "censorship" because they think it casts a pall over something that is actually a necessary public good.

"Social media has been a vector of strong, divisive, unfounded opinions and lies for over a decade. ... We have built tools that give an asymmetric advantage to liars and lunatics,” author Sam Harris said in a recent podcast interview with Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, and journalists Bari Weiss and Michael Shellenberger. Weiss and Shellenberger are among the handful of journalists who were given access to the Twitter Files by the company.

“The idea that we are powerless to correct this problem — because any efforts we make amount to ‘censorship’ — is insane. It's childish. It's masochistic. And it is demonstrably harming society,” Harris said.

“But,” he added, “this is a hard problem to solve."

If judged by the simple definition of the word “censor,” some of what Twitter has done is technically censorship, and the debate really is over whether censorship is always bad or sometimes needed.

Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., who has sponsored a bill requiring more disclosure of when government officials make moderation requests to social media companies, said essentially this in a recent speech on the topic.

“The government needs to be very careful about how they wade into regulating social media platforms … but that’s not an excuse for taking no action at all,” Lummis said.

And sometimes “censorship” is used to describe things that are simply what DiResta called “counterspeech and contextualization,” such as when Twitter has affixed labels and fact-checking to tweets with clearly false claims.

DiResta noted that those who cry foul over claims of censorship have a responsibility to say what they do want. If they do not want to use fact-checking labels, or to reduce the reach of false information, or to take down incitements to violence, “then is the alternative simply a viral free-for-all, at all times, with every unverified rumor going viral and the public being left to sort it out?” DiResta asked.

Weiss, who is widely considered a free speech advocate by her readers and fans, agreed that some form of what others call censorship is needed online.

“Anyone who's honest will say that these platforms shouldn't just let actual lies and misinformation rip and that they should have some moderation policies,” she said.

The question for many who dig into the details, then, is not one of whether to censor, but of how best to do so. Conservatives have claimed that social media censorship has had a partisan tilt, and that the Twitter Files proved this.

But there is not yet hard evidence that Twitter applied a partisan lens to its moderation or filtering.

Misinformation and disinformation

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

These two terms may sound similar, but they have different definitions.

“Misinformation is simply false or inaccurate information — nothing more, nothing less. In other words, it’s just someone getting their facts wrong, which we do all the time,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

“Disinformation, however, is false or misleading information peddled deliberately to deceive, often in pursuit of an objective.”

In other words, if you’re purposefully trying to deceive someone, that’s disinformation. If you just don’t know what you’re talking about, that’s misinformation.

Nonetheless, the two terms are often used interchangeably, which can lead to problems.

“There are real risks in rushing to label communication ‘disinformation’ without a full understanding of a speaker’s motive or the facts. … In a complicated and fast-changing world, what’s labeled ‘disinformation’ today can be recognized as fact tomorrow,” FIRE said.

DiResta said that the misinformation label is often bandied about too liberally and that overuse of it was “egregious” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media companies were overly aggressive in labeling some COVID-related claims as true or false, when a better approach to some claims would have been to say that the truth of the matter was not yet known, she said.

“We were looking at rumors, not misinformation,” DiResta said of the moment when COVID was new and poorly understood. “You have rumors circulating ... in an environment where the truth cannot be known.”

“So the policies that say, 'This is true, this is false,' just completely misinterpret what is actually happening."

Digital public square

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

This phrase describes an online forum similar to a physical public gathering space. It’s a place, like Twitter, where people come to discuss what’s on their minds.

Then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a unanimous 2017 Supreme Court decision overruling a North Carolina statute that prohibited sex offenders from using social media, defined those websites as a “modern public square.”

But a detailed comparison of an online public square with a physical one reveals some important distinctions and raises questions about the viability of an online version.

Online, there are few rules and little formal structure. But in the physical world, places designed for conversation and debate usually have more guardrails and restrictions. A town hall meeting, for example, typically has a moderator of some kind, just as a classroom has a teacher to guide the discussion.

Conservatives are fierce defenders of this rule-based system in real-world settings, decrying attempts by left-wing students on college campuses to interrupt or drown out the speech of a figure they do not like.

But online, conservatives tend to be more skeptical of a rule-based system, favoring more of a free-for-all approach.

When Elon Musk closed the deal to buy Twitter last October, he said he wanted the platform to be "a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”

But in practice, the online public square has become a place “where everyone is shouting all the time and anyone who doesn’t like it just stays home,” wrote Jean Burgess, professor of digital media at Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

In a physical town square, people do not have a mass conversation. The only way speech is conducted among large groups in the physical world is with clear rules for who can speak when. Creating an online town square has proved to be much more difficult, in part perhaps because the comparison may be unhelpful, DiResta told Harris.

“We're expecting these public squares to be the be-all and end-all of sense-making, and they're just not cut out for that. They are just not designed for it. So there's a kind of unrealistic expectation component to this as well,” she said.

Free speech

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

It is certainly anyone’s right to go into any public space and start talking, but those rights are not absolute, despite broad constitutional protections under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio found that speech that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" is not protected under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has defined a few other limitations on free speech, ruling that “the First Amendment provides no protection for obscenity, child pornography, or speech that constitutes what has become widely known as ‘fighting words,’” according to the Congressional Research Service. “‘Fighting words’ require an immediate risk of a breach of peace.”

Often overlooked is the distinction between free speech and amplification.

If a random person starts shouting in a public space — within the broad limits of protected speech — they may be allowed to do so, but they do not have the right to have their speech broadcast electronically to thousands or millions of people, which is what social media does.

This is one of the key differences between a real-world public square and the internet: The potential reach of any person is much wider online than it is in the physical world.

Money, power and influence can amplify someone’s voice on TV. But online, the willingness to be outrageous and even absurd is a form of currency, because these things draw attention.

“Ordinary people are brought together in a setting in which the main — or often the only — reward that’s available is attention,” wrote Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of internet research, in his 2018 book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

“With nothing else to seek but attention, ordinary people tend to become assholes, because the biggest assholes get the most attention,” Lanier wrote.