Is content moderation stifling public discourse?

February 3, 2021

Content moderation is difficult work for any social media company. Every day millions of posts and messages are shared on these platforms, most are benign in nature but as with anything there will be abusive, hateful, and sometimes violent content shared or promoted by certain individuals and organizations. Most social media companies expect their users to engage on these platforms within a certain set of rules or community standards. These content policies are often decided upon with careful and studied reflection on the gravity of moderation in order to provide a safe and appropriate place for users. It is an admittedly difficult and thorny ethical issue though because social media has become such a massive and integral part of our diverse society, not to mention the hyper politicization of such issues. 

Over the years, content moderation practices have come under intense scrutiny because of the breadth of the policies themselves as well as their misapplication—or more precisely the inconsistent application—of these rules for online conduct. Just last week, The Daily Citizen—the news arm of Focus on the Family—was reportedly locked out of their account due to a post about President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Rachel Levine to serve as assistant secretary of health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Daily Citizen’s tweet was flagged by Twitter for violating its policy on hateful conduct, which includes but not limited to “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” This broad policy seems to include using the incorrect pronouns for individuals, using the former name of someone after they transition and identify by another name, or—in the case of The Daily Citizen’s tweet—stating the biological and scientific reality of someone’s sex even if they choose to idenitfy as the opposite sex or derivation thereof.

After The Daily Citizen appealed the decision, the request was subsequently denied by Twitter’s content moderation team and the organization was left with the choice of deleting the violating tweet or they would continue to be locked out of their account. It should be noted that the account was not suspended or blocked, which has been the case in other instances of policy violations, such as former President Trump’s recent suspension. The Daily Citizen decided to keep the tweet up and have been unable to use their account since.

The purpose of content moderation

The implementation of content moderation practices is actually encouraged by Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act, which was a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to promote the growth of the fledgling internet in the mid-1990s. Section 230 gives internet companies a liability shield for online user content—meaning users and not the platforms themselves are responsible for the content of posts—in exchange for encouraging “good faith” measures to remove objectionable content in order to make the internet a safer place for our society.

These “good faith” measures are designed to create safer online environments for all users. The debate over content moderation often center though on exactly what these measures are to entail, not the presence of the measures in the first place. Without any sort of content moderation, social media platforms will inevitably be used and abused to promote violence, true hateful conduct, and may become a breeding ground for misinformation and other dangerous content. Simply put, without moderation these platforms would not be a place anyone would truly feel comfortable engaging on each day nor would it be safe to engage in the first place. In general, content moderation policies are for the common good of all users, but the details and breadth of specific policies should at times be called into question as to their effectiveness or dangerous consequences for online dialogue.

Free speech

In these debates over content moderation, questions about the role of free speech abound. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech for all people. But it only protects citizens from interference by the government itself. The First Amendment’s free speech protection does not apply to the actions of a third party, such as a private social media company governing certain speech or implementing various content moderation policies. A helpful way to think about free speech in this instance is how Christians have rallied around the ability of other third parties to act in accordance with their deeply held beliefs and use their own free speech not to participate in a same-sex wedding, as in the case of Baronelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips. The government does not have the right, nor the authority, to force a third party to violate their deeply held beliefs outside of a clear and compelling public interest that cannot be accomplished by a less invasive manner.

Twitter is within its rights to create content moderation policies and govern speech on their platforms as they see fit, but these policies should take into account the true diversity of thoughts in our society and not denigrate certain types of religious speech as inherently hateful or dangerous. And content moderation policies are actually encouraged by provisions in Section 230. But that does not in any way mean that those policies are not able to be scrutinized by the public who have a choice on whether or not to use a particular platform and the freedom to criticize policies they deem deficient or shortsighted.

Dangerous and misguided policies

Even though Twitter, as well as other companies like Facebook, cannot actually violate one’s free speech, they are accountable for the policies that they craft as well as the deleterious outworkings of misguided and at times poorly crafted policies. These overly broad policies often actually limit the free exchange of ideas online and—in the case of The Daily Citizen’s post removal—actually censor free expression and cut back on a robust public dialogue, which is vital to a functioning democracy and society. 

Twitter’s hateful conduct policy begins by stating “You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” This broad definition of hateful conduct is then subsequently expanded to include nearly every form of speech that one may deem offensive, objectionable, or even simply disagreeable.

To Twitter’s credit, they do seek “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information, and to express their opinions and beliefs without barriers.” They go on to say that “Free expression is a human right – we believe that everyone has a voice, and the right to use it. Our role is to serve the public conversation, which requires representation of a diverse range of perspectives.” But this lofty goal of free expression is actually stifled and in many ways completely mitigated by promoting some speech at the expense of other speech deemed unworthy for public discourse, even if that speech aligns with scientific realities which are taught and affirmed by millions of people throughout the world, including but not limited to people of faith.

Civil disagreements over the biological and scientific differences between a man and woman simply do not and cannot—especially for the sake of robust public discourse—be equated with hate speech. And any attempt to create and enforce these types of broadly defined policies continues to break down the trust that the public has in these companies and the immense responsibility they have over providing avenues for public discourse and free expression given the ubiquity of these platforms in our society. In a time where there is already a considerable amount of distrust in institutions, governments, and even social media companies themselves, ill-defined policies that seem to equate historic and orthodox beliefs on marriage and sexuality with the dehumanizing nature of real hate speech and violent conduct only widen the deficit of trust and increases skepticism over the true intention behind these policies.

Christian engagement in content moderation

When Christians engage in these important debates over content moderation and online speech, we must do so with a distinct view of human dignity in mind. It is far too easy in a world of memes, caricatures, and 280 character posts to dehumanize those with whom we disagree or seek to be disagreeable in order to gain a following. We must champion the dignity of all people because we know that all people are created in the image of God and thus are worthy of all honor and respect. And part of championing this dignity is also speaking clearly about the dehumanizing effects of ideologies like transgenderism that tend to equate someone’s identity solely on the basis of their sexual preference or desires. We should advocate for better and more clearly defined policies because these policies affect our neighbors and their ability to connect with others.

When we engage on these important matters of social media and content moderation, we also must do so informed on the complexity of the situations at hand with clarity, charity, and most of all respect even for those with whom we deeply disagree. The Bible reminds us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Spiteful, derogatory, arrogant, and dehumanizing remarks about fellow image bearers are unbecoming of the people of God and this is not limited to issues of sexuality or transgenderism. These types of statements are becoming all too common online in our social rhetoric, even among professing Christians. It is past time for each of us to heed the words in the letter of James and seek to tame our tongue lest it overcome us with its deadly poison (James 3:8) and lead us down the same path of those in which we disagree over fundamental matters of sexuality and even issues of content moderation.

When we engage in these important issues and seek to frame debates over online speech, we must also do so with an understanding of the immense weight and pressure that many in content moderation face each day. While we may think that the tweet or post that was flagged is perfectly appropriate, we must remember that often the initial decisions on moderation are made with help of algorithmic detection. Often these AI systems are used to cut down on the amount of violating content but these systems do make mistakes. Upon appeal, these decisions are then handed over to human reviewers who may only have an extremely short window to make a call given the sheer amounts of content to review. This does not mean that these decisions are always correct or even that the policies driving these content decisions are helpful or clearly defined. The question isn’t whether discrimination or bias exists in these discussions, but where the lines are drawn, by whom, what worldview drove their creation, and the ability to appeal decisions on the merits.

Christians must also realize that in a rapidly shifting and secularizing culture, we will naturally be at odds with the mours of the day but that should not deter us from speaking truth, grounding in love and kindness, as we engage in the heated debates over online speech, social media, and content moderation. But our hope and comfort doesn’t come from better policies or consistent application across these platforms. Even if it feels as though the ground is shifting right beneath us and as there are vapid calls to “get on the right side of history,” we can know and trust that biblical truth and human anthropology isn’t about power or control but about pursuing the good of our neighbor in accordance with the truth of the One who created us and ultimately rescue each of us from our own proclivities toward sin and rebellion.

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Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24