Why Major Social Media Sites Are Censoring Free Speech

By | April 9, 2016

Websites such as Reddit and Twitter have faced a lot of criticism over their recent decisions to censor unpopular political opinions and  their removal of offensive, but legal content. Many blame the problem on the sites being “run by social justice warriors”, but the truth is, it’s much more complicated than that.

Social media sites need to remain completely free in order to maintain market share. For this reason, the main product and primary driver of revenue of pretty much any social media site is ad space.  Early on, new social media sites are often funded by investors, and therefore, don’t require generating any revenue initially. Ads are generally not run during the early stages of a social media site, as the primary goal of the site is to grow its user base, and become prominent. The site’s #1 goal is to provide the best possible user experience in order to grow. Even the slightest annoyance from an ad could lose the site a user, which is best avoided early on to maintain long term profits. Once the site has the majority market share of a particular type of service, it’s very difficult to lose users over annoying ads or bad design decisions, as everyone they know is using the site, and other new social media sites are a wasteland.

As a site grows bigger, so do operating expenses. Hosting an enormous amount of data, distributing it, processing the logic associated with your site, and paying developers to develop new features becomes extremely expensive. Advertisers are very picky about where they want to advertise. Companies do not want their brand associated with offensive material. In addition, a significant portion of modern internet advertising is context-based. Offensive material generally does not generate a quality context that is valued by advertisers.

For this reason, when social media websites grow large enough, they cannot afford to foster free speech. The establishment of a “safe space” provides a much more profitable platform for an ad network.

Example

Reddit was founded upon the principle of free speech, with site admins stating that they would only remove illegal content. Shortly after its creation, Reddit was bought out by Condé Nast, which is now owned by Advance Publications. For several years, Reddit allowed pretty much any legal content. Despite the website growing at a rapid pace, and selling ads at the top of the site as well as on the sidebar, the website failed to generate a profit. Reddit quickly became associated with some of its most offensive subreddits. Subreddits are specific subcommunities within Reddit where users can post links to content or text based “self posts”. A tiny minority of its content became the first thing many people thought of when Reddit was mentioned, despite the overwhelmingly majority of Reddit’s content being family-friendly. This was extremely problematic, as advertisers don’t want their brand associated with anything offensive, as it poses a risk to their brand image. Reddit Gold, Reddit’s subscription based premium membership that offers a variety of convenience perks, did not generate enough revenue to maintain a profit either.

In 2015, Reddit announced new policies regarding the type of content that is allowed. It was said that offensive content would be “quarantined”, meaning that users would need to log in to view the content, and ads would not be displayed on those pages. When the changes went through, very few offensive subreddits were quarantined-the majority of them were completely banned. The result is that while a considerable amount of users were upset and moved to the alternative site Voat(Reddit clone with free speech), the majority came back due to voat being unable to handle the traffic, and lacking the same level of user adaptation and content that Reddit has. Voat currently only has an active community on major categories like technology, as well as the subreddits that were banned on Reddit. Niche subreddits less than 1 million subscribers on Reddit are mostly dead on Voat. The lack of user adaptation on Voat means that users upset by Reddit’s decision against free speech are likely to continue to use Reddit.

 

Censoring these offensive communities also resulted in a positive portrayal by the mainstream media, and cleared up a lot of the negative stigma that Reddit had. While they compromised free speech and upset millions of users, very few users actually left due to the lack of an alternative with the same level of content, and the site had a substantially increased appeal to advertisers.

Conclusion

In order to maximize profits, social media sites aim to provide the best possible platform for advertisers. This includes quality ways of enabling advertisers to target users that are likely to take interest in their products/services, as well as building a platform that is unlikely to offend people, in order to further increase its appeal to advertisers.