Snap judgement

Fully Charged

Hey everyone, it's Sarah Frier. On Wednesday, Snap Inc. did something that Facebook and Twitter will probably never do. The company decided that because Donald Trump had been promoting racism and violence in public statements, his content should no longer appear on the app's Discover feed. His Snapchat videos are still intact, but they won't be served up to people not already following him.

It was a simple solution—in stark contrast to Snap's social media competitors, where every debate about what content to leave up and take down tends to become mired in companies' complex, ever-changing policies that not even employees understand.

Forays into moderating political speech have landed social media companies in an increasingly tenuous position. Twitter Inc. for the first time last week decided to put a warning label on a Trump tweet that the company said glorified violence, meeting swift White House blowback. Facebook Inc. left a post with the same language up on its site with no extra context and was greeted with unprecedented employee dissent.

This week as he tried to quell the outrage, Zuckerberg faced his employees with a nuanced policy rebuttal that was tough to parse: Facebook only takes down posts that are "inciting" violence, he said, and the company didn't think Trump's post did that, but if Twitter thought Trump's post did that, Twitter should have taken the post down entirely. There may be a middle-ground solution, he added, but figuring that out will take time. If you're still reading, it's worth remembering that even that is an oversimplification. Sometimes Facebook enforces its policies on violent speech, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes politicians get an exemption, sometimes they don't.

Both Twitter and Facebook are desperately trying to appear neutral and even-handed with their decisions on each post. But as former employees said in an open letter to Zuckerberg on Wednesday, "Facebook isn't neutral, and never has been." The platform has always been biased in favor of content that gets more attention. 

Like most social media companies, Facebook's algorithms boost the content that gets the most engagement, allowing some posts to spread quickly through the platform. It generally doesn't stop that from happening, and errs on the side of not removing users' posts. Zuckerberg says this is because even though the first amendment doesn't apply to his private platform, he likes to operate by a free speech philosophy. But in debates about social media censorship, first amendment scholars caution that freedom of speech isn't the same thing as freedom of reach. You are guaranteed a voice—but not an audience, or virality.

Snap's innovation was to take away Trump's reach. It may have been a masterstroke of moderation, side-stepping the issue entirely. Or its decision to make a call based on instinct, rather than a weighty policy rulebook, could set a difficult precedent. But either way, it's opened up a new front in the fight over who gets to say what, and to whom, online. 

In the end, after the company announced the decision, Trump was just as angry with Snap as he was with Twitter for a much milder action. The president, it seems, doesn't care about winding arguments about moderation policy. He cares about winning. —Sarah Frier

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