Andrew Sant Fournier – Vice President of MALTMUN , BA (Hons) Graduate in International Relations and recently graduated from a Master’s of Arts in Diplomatic Studies.
Published on 22nd February 2020
“I may not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”
The words uttered by Voltaire during the Enlightenment period in France in the 19th Century, seem to ring truer today more than ever. Freedom of speech, and the freedom to express one’s opinions and qualms have become a staple of a modern democracy, and these freedoms have become even further accentuated with the use of social media. However, with the events of the early days of 2021, we have seen a new shift in the balance of power, from politicians to media moguls.
On the 6th of January 2021, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Spotify, Twitch, Shopify and Stripe, banned US President Donald Trump from using any of his social media platforms, on the grounds of fomenting violence and promoting civil unrest, which was manifested in the riots on the Capitol in Washington DC. TikTok, Reddit, YouTube and even Pinterest followed suit by restricting his activity on their fora. As pointed out by Edward Snowden, the notorious figure behind the infamous WikiLeaks, this ban has set a dangerous precedent; the power an individual or corporation has over global public conversation. The former President of the free world, and one of the most powerful posts in international relations, was barred from practicing one of his freedoms by private organisations due to the risk of further incitement of violence. Freedom of speech, now has an asterisk, indicating a new debate – are big technology companies and their billionaire chief executives allowed to act as judge and jury in such high-profile cases?
To many, it seems as if the ban was justified. Since the outcome of the election, Trump has been on a twitter tirade inciting division, hate and scepticism. His demeanour and rhetoric have been described as risky and menacing and so, according to Facebook, the decision was made in the name of public safety. The situation was “extraordinary and untenable”, said Jack Dorsey, the Chief Executive of Twitter. Mark Warner, a Democratic Senator from Virginia, argued that this punishment is “not nearly enough” to atone for the misinformative and extremist nature of Trump’s media since making office. In the latter months of 2020, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram began to notify users that certain tweets made by Trump were misinformed, and spreading fake news. Exclamation marks appeared, retweets were often disabled and some were even deleted.
Jillian C. York, a free speech activist pointed out that Facebook and other companies often take too long to make a decision, suggesting that these platforms’ convenient decision to grow a backbone has more to do with political re-alignment rather than the violence in the Capitol. In an article featured on the Sunday Times, the author argued that the fact that the ban was called for by politically motivated individuals, such as Michelle Obama, only increased the suspicion that the ban was motivated by the changing political environment.
Some tech analysts like Ben Thompson concluded that the best outcome is impeachment, which came to fruition as Trump became the only president ever to be impeached twice in a single four-year term. The encouragement of violence and the determination to hinder the peaceful transition of power (a principle democratic pillar) laid the groundwork for the impeachment process started on the 13th of January.
Trump is not the first, and hardly is he the last, demagogue that the USA will face. However, social media has amplified his rhetoric of hate and division. The delicate information ecosystem that Trump has managed to cultivate over the last few years has been accentuated by the capacity for social media websites to spread news at the click of the button. Therefore, banning his account does not mean stopping the danger at source. This is because Facebook and Google have been sculpted on a profit-driven model that perpetuates the spread of disinformation, extremism, bigotry and racism.
Ultimately, bans do not foster profits. Communication corporations like Facebook and Google dominate the market by selling clickbait and addictive conspiratorial content for quick profits. Real news stories are often lost, and in their place, conspiracy theories and hoax websites came to the fore. Of course, this problem is not unique to the US, and thus the banning of Trump alone does not solve the problem of toxic, addictive content that continues to plague the modern democratic society and line the pockets of the executives of these monopolies.
Dorsey explained that even though, in his view, banning Trump was the “right decision”, it is a testament to the company’s failure to promote healthy conversation. Social media provides the platform for citizens of the world to enjoy their freedom of speech, however, if private organisations are allowed to decide who can post what, this freedom is being infringed upon. On the 14th of January, Trump, through the White House Twitter account, claimed that were was an “assault on free speech like never before”.
Unsurprisingly, members of the Trump family claimed that free speech is dead, and that the twitter accounts of dictatorial regimes have never been suspended. However, it was not just members of Trump’s clique that found the ban problematic. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is seldomly on the same side as her US counterpart, stated that freedom of expression is a fundamental right of elementary significance, and thus, the punishment should be decided by the judicial system.
This posits that Silicon Valley is now stronger than ever before. These corporations have often been criticised for side-stepping democratic requirements and failing to account for its flawed business model that promotes conspiratorial, fake and violent content to its billions of users worldwide. This corporate power grab manoeuvre by the Silicon Valley does not in fact fill the void left behind by the incapacitated, or perhaps incapable, US institutions which constantly fail to restrain authoritarianism, racism and hate. US democracy is in danger if it is forced to rely on the services and decisions of the large private corporations, rather than its president and the US institutions of justice and democracy.
These businesses and their billionaires must become more accountable, and take a more direct role in maintaining democracy. Journalist and editor of the New York Times, Greg Bensinger, remarked that the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of this world must be on the front line to help restore truth and democracy in this age of fake news. Big tech and social media companies can take a more prominent role in mitigating freedom of speech and the spread of misinformation through; including more direct, human moderation of high-profile accounts, impose more warning labels that warn readers of fake news, and impose software that delays posts for review. The incumbent administration must address these issues, and work with these big tech companies to re-programme their lucrative business models to be more democracy-efficient rather than profit-driven.
Whatever one may think of the banning of his accounts, the fact that democratically unaccountable monopolies with extraordinary power over communications infrastructure such as Facebook and Google, to silence political speech is extremely treacherous. Now is definitely the time for reflection to understand the virtual environment around us. There is a dire need for open decentralised standards for social media.
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Society.