The Free Speech Blind Spot: Foreign Election Interference on Social Media
Combating Election Interference: When Foreign Powers Target Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2020 Forthcoming)
27 Pages Posted: 29 May 2020
Date Written: May 1, 2020
The current system for monitoring and removal of foreign election interference on social media is a free speech blind spot. Social media platforms’ standards for what constitutes impermissible interference are vague, enforcement is seemingly ad hoc and inconsistent, and the role governments play in deciding what speech should be taken down is unclear. This extraordinary opacity — at odds with the ordinary requirements of respect for free speech — has been justified by a militarized discourse that paints such interference as highly effective, and “foreign” speech as uniquely pernicious. But, in fact, evidence of such campaigns’ effectiveness is limited and the singling out and denigration of “foreign” speech is at odds with the traditional justifications for free expression.
Hiding in the blind spot created by this foreign-threat, securitized framing are more pervasive and fundamental questions about online public discourse, such as how to define appropriate norms of online behavior more generally, who should decide them and how they should be enforced. Without examining and answering these underlying questions, the goal that removing foreign election interference on social media is meant to achieve — reestablishing trust in the online public sphere — will remain unrealized.
Keywords: free speech, election interference, social media, first amendment, international human rights law, platform governance, self-governance
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