The Economics of Freedom of Expression

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Extremist views have always found a “publisher” or platform, even if that publisher is the holder of the view and the platform a small circle of like-minded friends.

However, social networking sites have the capacity to, at minimum, heighten the visibility of people and views, and, at most, transform such individual or isolated rants into viral posts and make minority opinions seem like the majority trends.

With views, engagement, and subscribers key to any platform’s financial success, anything that catches interest and engagement and subscribers adds to profit. Whereas any move to limit content not only adds costs for moderation and programming but potentially reduces participation and thus income.

So, it is predictable from an economics standpoint — even without an owner avowing to be a free speech advocate — that for social networking sites, from Facebook or X to Substack, freedom of expression is the default argument to little or no moderation of individual content. And then, that the main driver to change that policy is, basically, economics — either people unsubscribe or the government threatens fines.

At a recent workshop on digital gender justice organized by WACC and the World Council of Churches, Lucina Di Meco, co-founder of #ShePersisted, highlighted the global prevalence of disinformation against women in politics — including how the economics of social media companies are central to the problem.