By Kirti Mehta
The rise of social media has led to its emergence as a powerful platform, utilised by a variety of actors – political figures, celebrities, grassroots activists etc. – for deliberation and discussion. However, in recent years this has been accompanied by an increase in the spread of ‘fake news’ and disinformation, which has featured in many political debates including Brexit, US foreign and domestic policy and now COVID-19. This has led to the rise of a new debate: seemingly what, if any, are the appropriate restrictions to be implemented on social media, and furthermore who should have the power to impose such measures? Should the ‘truth’ of posts be verified by independent bodies and individuals themselves or does the responsibility reside with the global tech giants which facilitate online platforms for conversation?
Twitter have been continuously accused of providing Donald Trump, as well as other world leaders, large exemptions from its regulatory guidelines – particularly regarding the articulation of personal attacks and hate speech. However, on January 8th, 2021, Donald Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended. Twitter cited the following two tweets as inciting violence, following the storming of the Capitol by Republican right-wing protestors on January 6th, 2021, and thereby creating grounds for permanent suspension:
‘“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” – President Donald J. Trump (08/01/21)
‘“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” – President Donald J. Trump (08/01/21)
The violent riots at the Capitol building appeared to be the turning point for Twitter. Explanations of the former president’s claims, which attempted to delegitimise President Biden’s 2020 electoral victory and Trump’s condoning of the violent rioters, pointed to the potential to incite further violent riots to undermine a peaceful transition of power to Joe Biden. Soon after this event, other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitch and Shopify followed suit and suspended Donald Trump’s accounts for indefinite periods of time. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, issued a statement in which he explained:
“Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labelling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”
In this statement, Mr. Zuckerberg seems to acknowledge the manipulative role of Facebook, as a social media platform, in spreading ‘controversial speech’ – in other words hate speech or misrepresented facts – in the name of freedom of speech and information.
Whilst the suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account was praised by many, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged the measures as setting a ‘dangerous precedent’ for the future. Similarly, other politicians, including Angela Merkel, condemned the arrangement for infringing freedom of speech.
The impact of this act cannot be understated. This act effectively limited Trump’s sphere of influence to those which are accessible through mainstream news platforms. He has been seemingly silenced from participating in conversations of everyday life. I think many would agree that the suspension from social media made Trump much less prevalent in discussion and more difficult to follow. As opposed to knowing his mostly outrageous policy positions through the touch of an app on your mobile phone, you now had to actively scroll through newspaper feeds to find them. Whilst banning social media accounts does not change opinions or realities, it does limit accessibility.
Whether the intensions of social media giants are for the benefit or demise of the public, the fact remains that they have the power to silence (or at least decrease the volume) of arguably the (once) most powerful man on the planet. Whether you agree with his suspension or not, this in itself is a terrifying thought.
But what are the alternatives?
In 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DDCM) alongside the Home Office proposed an Online Harms White Paper, which called for an independent watchdog. This independent regulatory body would have the responsibility of creating a ‘code of conduct’ for large tech companies. Furthermore, it would hold the power to fine and block sites which broke these rules. As well as a host of illegal activities, this White Paper also covered situations of spreading disinformation and hate speech.
The mechanisms suggested in this White Paper include forcing social media sites to utilise fact-checking software, and to promote ‘legitimate’ news information sources. There is also the proposal that social media sites should produce an annual report, publishing the amount of ‘harmful’ content spread on their platforms.
On 12 November 2020 a report was published by the Forum for Information and Democracy, recommending a number of strategies designed to end the chaos of social media. However, this time the report was aimed at 38 countries including the UK, Canada and France. Similar to the White Papers, the core recommendation was again the creation statutory code which articulates both safety and factuality requirements for social media. However, this report goes one step further, to recommend that social networks should offer a correction to people identified for misinformation (as determined by independent fact checkers).
There appears to be a growing consensus across society that there is a need to impose more restrictions on social media platforms – a view that is even embraced (to an extent) by global tech firms themselves. Although, there remains a paramount concern for maintaining the protection of individual’s freedom of speech and expression. The debate appears to be steering towards methods of prevention and protection of regulations on social media sites, as opposed to the reactionary measures which resulted in the indefinite suspension of Donald Trump’s accounts. However, the overriding emphasis appears to remain on the responsibility of global social media tech companies to take control over these issues.