Late on Wednesday evening Facebook chose to ban President Trump from their platform and Instagram indefinitely, but at least for the duration of his presidency.
Twitter temporarily froze his account, but then took the more drastic decision of banning him permanently on Friday. Given his words directly led to the violence on Capitol Hill, who could blame them for taking this potentially preventative action?
While social media companies have for some time now been encouraged to remove accounts perceived to be harmful or criminal, this is nevertheless a watershed moment for the core definition of these organisations – one that will shape the role they and regulators play in curating our digital world.
This could not be more important. It all centres round the ongoing debate about whether social media companies are ‘publishers’ (with an editorial policy akin to a traditional newspaper) or ‘platforms’ (where they act as the passive host through which any and all content can be shared).
For years now they have maintained the façade that they are platforms – in short that they are not to blame for much of the biased, twisted material that’s shared through their tool. But if they are making choices about who to ban, what content is permissible, and what action is justified in the policing of their sites then their argument quickly deteriorates to the point of ridiculousness.
This is not a semantic, academic debate for media lawyers. In late November last year, Prince Harry sued the publishers of The Mail on Sunday over a story claiming that he has fallen out of touch with the Royal Marines. If Facebook is a platform, then they are broadly protected from similar lawsuits. If they are acknowledged to be a publisher then this totally changes the ballgame and leaves them open to such libel actions as well and could remove them from the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The banning of President Trump from social platforms will likely have a huge impact on clarifying this debate. Social media companies are undeniably taking an editorial stance, one that many will agree with in this instance. But once that premise is accepted, how can we object to future judgements that we are less keen on?
Too little, too late?
In this very specific situation, what will the impact of Facebook and Twitter’s decision be on Trump’s advocates?
His removal from these platforms takes away his primary means of communicating to some of his increasingly aggressive base of supporters. One possibility is that over time this ban will hurt him and his populist philosophy by making him seem unconnected and ineffective. They could think: ‘If Twitter can silence the great Trump, is he really the all powerful leader we think he is?’
The alternative, far more dangerous path is that it will yet further embolden his fanatics. A scenario that paints the elite, wealthy techno giants as being in hock to the out-of-touch Democrats; claiming they are so terrified by Trump speaking the truth that the will do anything to silence him. ‘They stole the election, now they’re trying to gag him!’ In this version of events, where do these people go? Do they continue to spout their views on mainstream channels, without an obvious leader to corral them?
The editorial decisions made by social media companies could quite feasibly create a digital Hydra – they can try to cut off the head, but many will grow in its place, spawning yet more leaders of hyper-partisan, totally populist campaigners to accompany his already large following of loyal lieutenants.
After all, it’s simply too late to now be punishing Trump by removing his bully pulpit. He’s on his way out and frankly the damage has been done. And he’s not done it alone, dozens of his Senators, Congressmen, political staffers and loyal media outlets have stoked the rhetoric that led to the violence in DC. It has already spread too far for it to be halted by simply banning Trump.
While Trump’s gagging on social channels sends a clear signal that tech giants are taking their curating role seriously, it needs to be more than a Democrat-wooing PR-exercise. Personal responsibility needs to be taken urgently among our lawmakers and the press to self-regulate the content that they all individually publish, whether or not digital companies are finally identified as publishers. We simply cannot wait yet more years for this debate to play out or for social media companies to regulate free expression retrospectively.
For one: it will cause resentment of the social channels from the perceived oppressed side of the deal. If Trump is censored by Twitter, then Trump supporters will turn their guns on to Twitter.
For another: social media companies are significantly more adept at adapting to the shifting needs of the digital sphere. There is already fear that any attempt by legislators to regulate social media will be out-dated and irrelevant by the time the lengthy legislative process is complete.
Whose job is it to police the digital police if they exist beyond traditional borders with little knowledgeable accountability?
The decision to ban Trump has already unleashed waves of criticism – some arguing that it’s an attack on free speech, others that it’s a more serious assault on democratic institutions. That pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of calls for an entirely reasonable principle: fairness. Many are calling for Twitter to ban Ayatollah Khamenei for the same reasons as Trump – will social media companies be able to operate their content moderation policies consistently?
It took Twitter three days to remove a post from a Chinese Embassy trying to spin justifications for their Uyghur genocide – do they have the capacity to apply them fairly? The pressure on them to be consistent, in speed and judgement, will grow and grow exponentially.
Trump may have led the creation of the ripe environment for sedition, but many agents played their part in advancing it. Obfuscating social media companies, slow legislators, and partisan communicators all must share in the blame for last Wednesday’s violence.
For that accountability to happen, influencers need to get to grips with their responsibility to consider the consequences of their personal content and for us all to understand the true role of the social media giants.
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This piece was written for Influence.