Free Speech and Online Platforms

Facebook, along with other social media platforms, has been wrestling with content moderation and its relationship with politics for years.  Recently, several platforms, including Twitter and Google, have made the decision to remove political ads from their platforms.  Facebook has chosen not to do so and has also exempted political ads from its standard content screening, defending the platform as a space for free expression.  Critics have attached this defense noting that advertisements are different than user speech in that platforms make more money for posting more ads.  Critics have also spoken out about microtargeting, the practice of using user data to send particular ads to particular users.  With the 2020 election approaching, concerns about the relationship between social media platforms and politics are growing.

Essential Questions:

  • What role should online platforms play in regulating the political ads and speech that appear on their platforms?
  • Should the protections of the First Amendment extend to untrue, hateful, or harassing speech?
  • What effect, if any, does content moderation or a lack thereof have on our elections?
  • What are the possible downsides to a private company moderating content for its users?



Carole Cadwalladr of The Guardian explaining Facebook’s role in the Brexit vote:

Mark Zuckerberg defending Facebook as a space for free expression:

Nicholas Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications, Facebook speaking about Facebook’s content moderation policies:

Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech criticizing Facebook’s handling of political ads:

Jack Dorsey on his view of Twitter’s role in free speech and politics:



Recent News Articles:

Facebook, Free Speech, and Political Ads – Mathew Ingram, Columbia Journalism Review, 10/31/2019

Critics say Facebook’s powerful ad tools may imperil democracy. But politicians love them. – Craig Timburg, Washington Post, 12/09/2019

Facebook’s ad tools subsidize partisanship, research shows. And campaigns may not even know it. – Isaac Stanley Becker, Washington Post, 12/10/2019


The more outrageous the lie, the better it is for Facebook’s bottom line. – Ellen P. Goodman and Karen Kornbluh, 11/09/2019

Facebook isn’t just allowing lies, it’s prioritizing them. – Tim Wu, New York Times, 11/04/2019

Facebook Can Help the News Business – Mark Zuckerberg, New York Times, 10/25/2019

It’s Time to Regulate Social Media Sites – Sacha Baron Cohen, Washington Post, 11/25/2019

Lexile Level – Adjustable Articles (Newsela)

How many likes will Facebook’s new “independent review” board get?

Facebook’s new normal is behind locked doors in its “war room”

Geography/Maps, Graphs, and Timelines:

Most popular mobile social networking apps in the United States as of September 2019, by monthly users

Primary Sources:

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Legal/Constitutional Connections:

First Amendment

Lesson Plans on this topic:

Evaluating Election Ads – Newseum

Lesson Plans regarding Media & News Literacy (general):

Media Literacy Resources – Newseum

News & Media Literacy Lessons – Common Sense

Media Misinformation, Viral Deception, and “Fake News” – University of Wyoming

Evaluating Sources in a ‘Post-Truth’ World: Ideas for Teaching and Learning About Fake News – New York Times Lessons