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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is Twitter Responsible for Speech On Its Platform?

Does Twitter have an ethical obligation to regulate certain expressions of speech on its platform?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

“Free speech is an interesting concept to tackle from a religious perspective. It is historically a rather recent phenomenon and was formulated in many ways as a response to limits on speech put forward by religion. Right there in the 10 commandments we have the limit on free speech that one should not take the Lord's name in vein. Religious ethics in general tend to be more comfortable with these limits than what we find in secular ethical theories. The question is further complicated by the fact that Twitter is a private business not a government agency. The government is prohibited from limiting free speech out of the fear that a tyrannical leader could use that option to stamp out any opposition to his tyranny. What we have in social media is very different. These are companies whose profit is tied to the amount of attention and engagement they get from their users. Naturally, extreme content draws more attention garnering them more profit. From this perspective I think they have an ethical duty not to fall into the trap of giving way to extreme and harmful content for sake of increased profits the same way an arm's dealer shouldn't be allowed to stir up war and conflict in hopes of profiting. Otherwise it is merely profiting off of suffering.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“Absolutely they do. Leaving the legal responsibility aside, I think we can all agree with the Supreme Court’s Oliver Wendall Holmes when he said in 1919 (Schenck_v._United States) that we cannot shout fire in a crowded theatre; unless, of course, there is in fact a fire in a crowded theatre. The use of Twitter and other social media for undermining the peaceful transfer of power or encouraging the use of poisons to be used in lieu of scientifically validated vaccines is just like that. Again, the courts may differ. But the Hindu tradition values Satya (truth) as one of the highest virtues. And one of the other of the highest virtues is ahimsa (nonviolence). When Asat (untruth) predominates, Himsa (violence) is often the result.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Yes I believe all social media platforms have huge ethical obligations to regulate or eliminate false statements and lies. I believe it is ethically wrong to use algorithms to manipulate a person's news feed. And I think they are obligated to eliminate false accounts or ‘bots’ and ‘trolls.’ ”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“What a complicated question. The principle of the eighth commandment of the Decalogue, ‘you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,’ is found not only in Christianity with the Ten Commandments but also in natural law. Human beings have the right to speak freely within the limits of respecting their neighbor.

“Twitter is bound in principle by the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) (cf. CSR is ‘actions that are not illegal but intended to benefit parties other than the corporation’ (ibid.)

“Twitter is a business. Businesses exist to make money. Twitter ought not to make money at the expense of the reputations of human beings. Twitter’s responsibility is to monitor speech based on natural human dignity for those who subscribe to the service and act accordingly.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I may be naive, but yes, I believe that individuals and corporations have an ethical responsibility to promote truth and avoid violence or incitement of violence and demonstrate civility.  Such things are necessary parts of living in a functioning and thriving human society. Is it an obligation? Yes. Is it illegal to do otherwise? Probably not.”

My response:

All actions have consequences and the person, people, or corporation that takes those actions bear responsibility for the consequences. The internet is a collection of companies which provide tools for publishing and communication. They provide a means for individuals to publish and disseminate material. The individuals who create the material that causes harm are primarily responsible. But without a publishing platform and the means to spread the harmful message, the individual voice is barely heard. Twitter, Instagram, Parler, and Facebook, among others, are the publishing platforms. Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, and iCloud are examples of communications platforms. The question here is the distribution of responsibility between the individual and the corporation. Ultimately, the harmful consequences would not happened without both the content creator and the content publisher/distributor. So yes, Twitter bears a share of the responsibility for the distribution of harmful content.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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