Have social media giants crossed the line?
Suspending the social media accounts of high-profile personalities, like US former President Donald Trump, has triggered a fresh debate about issues around democracy and freedom of speech for manipulating public opinion. It has also highlighted the need to enact laws that should deter misinformation and the incitement of violence, as well as the urge to uphold the terms and conditions spelt out in social media platforms.
The genesis of the debate
The raging debate has been triggered by several social media giants’ bold decision to suspend US former President Donald Trump’s account indefinitely. According to NBC News, Mark Zuckerberg started to consider indefinitely suspending President Donald Trump’s Facebook account late on the night of Jan. 6, just hours after a mob of Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. Zuckerberg had always been reluctant to suspend Trump’s accounts, citing freedom of expression and his statements’ newsworthiness. However, a growing chorus of critics outside and inside the company called for him to take more aggressive action. Nevertheless, Zuckerberg had to do the unthinkable after a series of conversations with senior aides, after he had come to believe that Trump’s brazen incitement of violence to overturn the election crossed a line.
“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!!!” Trump tweeted Friday. Twitter cited the tweet in its statement shutting down his account.
Was the decision good or bad?
Whether the decision to silence Mr. Trump was good or bad depends on who you ask. However, the Washington Post has cited Zignal Research firm as concluding that online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent after several social media platforms suspended Trump and his key allies.
In the same vein, the Post quoted another research by the San Francisco-based analytics firm that conversation about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites in the week after Trump was banned from Twitter. The research suggests disinformation involving high-profile influencers; rank-and-file followers were central to pushing millions of Americans to reject the election results. They also conclude that many Trumpists have trouble surviving without his social media accounts.
Does the decision set a precedent?
In a comment in Newyorker, entitled “The Importance and Incoherence of Twitter’s Trump Ban,” Andrew Marantz opined that nothing in the Constitution prohibits a private company from enforcing its own policies. He notes that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to do so while admitting that a head of state’s censoring set a dangerous precedent. However, Andrew was quick to add that allowing a head of state to use a platform’s enormous power equally set a precedent.
Not only have social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook clamped down on high-profile leaders in the US, but they have also taken similar measures in other countries. In Uganda, Quartz Africa has reported that Facebook had disappeared hundreds of accounts associated with president Yoweri Museveni supporters in Uganda. Some of the accounts belong to pro-government online publications, while others belong to civil servants and socialites turned Museveni advisers.
The apologists cry foul
Trump’s allies took to Twitter to slam the social media giant’s decision to deactivate the president’s account for glorifying violence. Politico has reported that the President’s supporters criticized the move as a violation of free speech and panned Twitter for perceived liberal bias.
“Silencing people, not to mention the President of the US, is what happens in China, not our country. #Unbelievable” tweeted Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.
Though Trump’s presidency has come to an end, the debate about social media giants’ decision to silence him at the twilight of his tenure will not die down any time soon.
Need for legislation
It’s now essential for Governments to enact legislation that will deter people, be they officials or non-officials, from misinformation on social media platforms on the pretext of freedom of expression. It’s time to consider legal measures against the culprits.
However, questions persist about the proper jurisdiction to handle such cases and whether the process should take place at a national or international level.