By Bixyl Shuftan
It was about a week ago on Friday January 8 that President Donald Trump was permanently banned by the social medial platform Twitter. The reasons given by Twitter on it's official announcement were "recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter." The ban got attention for a number reasons. One was that no previous President had relied so much on the social media platform, or anything similar. His numerous, and unfiltered, tweets to his followers, sometimes "dozens a day," were a big part of how he communicates with the public. While Trump's separate Presidential account remains, the takedown of his personal account meant the loss of his most frequently used means to communicate.
While Trump's opponents supported the move, many saying the ban should have been done a long time ago, a number have expressed criticism and reservations. Conservatives and populists accused Twitter of taking sides in political debate. Libertarians expressed concerns about free speech issues, especially as like or dislike him that Trump as US President is a major figure in US Government while he is in office.
A number of Trump's statements over Twitter were flagged for misinformation, notably some during the election, which itself touched off controversy. Various civil rights groups have criticized Twitter and other platforms for allowing Trump to air conspiracy theories and false claims. But the American Civil Liberties Union, while critical of his statements as well in the past, also expressed concern about the ban, saying while they understood the reasons for the ban, "the unchecked power" of major social media "should concern everyone."
Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute, felt the Trump Presidency has brought about new questions about the roles and responsibilites for social media platforms such as Twitter for both people in government and those advocating for free speech. "Some people have called for (applying) antitrust law to the social media platforms on the idea that there's essentially a monopoly on the speech environment, but those are untested legal waters," she spoke.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock felt the Twitter ban, in addition to bans by Facebook and Instagram, raise a "very big question" about how social media is regulated, commenting the bans were "taking editorial decisions." He went on to say while the scenes in Washington DC, "were terrible - and I was very sad to see that because American democracy is such a proud thing," he added, "But there's something else that has changed, which is that social media platforms are making editorial decisions now. That's clear because they're choosing who should and shouldn't have a voice on their platform."
Other officials in Europe expressed concerns. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the ban "problematic." French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire condemned Trump's "lies," but also spoke out against the ban, "What shocks me is that Twitter is the one to close his account. The regulation of the digital world cannot be done by the digital oligarchy."
Currently, social media companies are protected under US Federal law by Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications and Decency Act, which shields platforms from being held liable in court for the speech of users, unlike traditional media companies. But critics feel considering how much has changed since then and how big Facebook and Twitter have become, it's past time for a change. Trump and some of his supporters have called for a repeal of the law. But Fallow stated such a repeal would end up hurting him and other populists as the law shields Twitter and other social media of responsibility for allowing them to use the platforms.
Jack Dorsey, the man in charge of Twitter, would issue a series of statements on Wednesday Jan 13, feeling the ban was "right," but also "dangerous," with potential consequences for free speech later on.
I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?
I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.
That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.
Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.
The check and accountability on this power has always been the fact that a service like Twitter is one small part of the larger public conversation happening across the internet. If folks do not agree with our rules and enforcement, they can simply go to another internet service.
This concept was challenged last week when a number of foundational internet tool providers also decided not to host what they found dangerous. I do not believe this was coordinated. More likely: companies came to their own conclusions or were emboldened by the actions of others.
This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.
Yes, we all need to look critically at inconsistencies of our policy and enforcement. Yes, we need to look at how our service might incentivize distraction and harm. Yes, we need more transparency in our moderation operations. All this can’t erode a free and open global internet.
Twitter has also been criticized on the move on the grounds that while Trump's account is gone, some very undemocratic world leaders still have theirs. But Twitter has suspended some of these accounts on occasions in the past for violating it's rules. In another example of social media enforcing it's rules, a few days ago Facebook shut down several accounts liked to the Ugandan government.
President Trump is due to step down on Wednesday January 20. Joe Biden, whom also has a personal Twitter account, was given another one as President-elect, "Folks — This will be the account for my official duties as President. At 12:01 PM on January 20th, it will become @POTUS. Until then, I'll be using @JoeBiden."
Sources: BBC News, ABC News, Twitter, Politico