Facebook and Twitter: no angels of democracy
19 January 2021
Opinion: Applaud the social media silencing of Donald Trump if you must, but be careful what you wish for, writes Matt Bartlett.
The sighs of relief from all around the world were almost palpable when Donald Trump’s Twitter account was permanently banned this month.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Google (among others) have all ‘cancelled’ the president from their platform, giving many of us a satisfying sense of schadenfreude. Nobody thinks Trump’s tweets were acceptable and few will be sad that he is gone from our newsfeeds. On the other hand, the deplatforming of Trump sets a dangerous new precedent for democracy, with unelected tech executives choosing to silence the voice of a sitting president.
While it is not right to describe Trump as truly ‘censored’ (the man can call into Fox and Friends whenever he likes), do not underestimate the impact on a politician to lose access to Facebook and Twitter. Those companies own the most powerful platforms in politics, giving politicians direct access to hundreds of millions of voters. This gives the executives of those companies outsized power, and this is not necessarily something we should welcome - no matter how much we approve their guillotining of Donald Trump.
It is true, of course, that Trump’s tweets encouraging his supporters to attack the Capitol were in breach of Twitter and Facebook’s rules against promoting violence. However, Trump has been breaching those same rules for the full duration of his term as President. Some of these are even more flagrant than his support of the Capitol rioters (just one example: his various threats to “totally destroy” North Korea).
However, Twitter has repeatedly pointed to a ‘public interest framework’ to explain why it has left Trump’s account alone, until now. Facebook has similar frameworks. These principles basically say the public should be able to hear directly from politicians and world leaders, and so those public officials can get a free pass for content that would earn normal users a ban. These frameworks make sense. As appalling as Trump’s conduct on Twitter is, he was legitimately elected president in a democratic election. Americans should get to hear what he has to say, for better or for worse.
The problem is that Twitter and the other social media platforms have a pair of irreconcilable frameworks. On the one hand, they have some pretty reasonable rules of what content is acceptable (promoting violence? Not OK). But on the other hand, they hand public officials a get-out-of-jail-free card with the public interest exemption (promoting violence? Well, OK.) While Facebook ostensibly has an ‘Oversight Board’ to handle tough questions around freedom of expression, this board has been heavily criticised for not actually having any oversight over important decisions (such as whether to censor the President!)
Make no mistake: Facebook and Twitter executives are making subjective decisions about which of their frameworks to apply to political content. In other words, they are making up the rules as they go along.
Be careful what you wish for
Part of the problem is that there are genuinely difficult issues in terms of what content is acceptable for social media platforms, and what is not. Trump’s rambling aside, it is not always easy to tell whether a particular piece of content is in breach of Twitter and Facebook’s rules. In the wake of Trump’s ban, some conservatives on Twitter raised one example in particular: if the President was banned for encouraging his supporters to violently protest at the Capitol, what does that mean for tweets like this from the left-wing media outlet Slate?
Slate’s tweet, linking to a podcast with an academic discussing the Black Lives Matter protests, does not immediately appear like the same breed as Trump’s ugly call to his supporters. However, a plain reading of Twitter’s rules on the glorification of violence suggests that Slate may be in breach. The Slate article included in the tweet states (emphasis added):
“The anguished unrest that spread across the country may have made you feel uncomfortable and angry. But Kellie Carter-Jackson says that’s the point: Peaceful protest may not be able to spur the structural change so many people are seeking.”
In a nutshell, this is basically what the Capitol protest leaders say: We’re angry, we’re demanding change, and peaceful protesting won’t get us anywhere. Yet Slate’s tweet stays up, and Trump’s were taken down.
None of this is to remotely suggest that Black Lives Matter (protesting an urgent and devastating national crisis) are the same as the sad losers storming the Capitol (protesting the result of a free and fair election). Rather, my point is that the subjective judgment of Twitter could easily have swung the other way. What if Twitter had taken down Slate’s journalism for “glorifying violence”, and left up Trump’s hostility on the grounds of public interest? There is no public accountability for social media platforms and no requirement for them to be transparent when making these decisions.
There is a risk here of a slippery slope as social media platforms continue to grow in power and influence. Remember that these private companies are far from neutral actors when it comes to politics — the results of an election can have massive impacts on any particular company. Take Elizabeth Warren, defeated candidate in the Democratic Party presidential parties. One of her headline policies was to break up Facebook and other Big Tech companies. Let’s imagine that she runs for President again in 2024 or 2028, with the same policy.
When Facebook executives come to mull over how Elizabeth Warren’s content is treated under their rules (and whether to apply the normal rules or the “public interest” exception), is it really much of a stretch to think that her plan to break up Facebook might have an impact on their decision?
Maybe this affects any on-the-margin decisions Facebook makes about censoring Warren’s content, like a speech supporting a contentious Black Lives Matter protest. Or, maybe, Facebook publicly declares that if Warren wants to break up the company, she shouldn’t get the benefit of its audience — and ban her from the platform. It seems far-fetched, but there is nothing stopping Facebook from doing this: It is a private company and nobody has a legal right to a Facebook profile. Lacking a digital presence is a death knell to any modern political campaign, and Facebook succeeds in protecting itself from the risk of being broken up.
For now, Twitter and Facebook are showing no such boldness. But their (admittedly satisfying) deplatforming of Trump should prove a reminder of the power these private companies can wield when they choose. And don’t mistake Big Tech for protective guardians of democracy, either. Facebook just last year obstructed an investigation into genocide in Myanmar, and there are claims that Twitter has previously stopped Israeli Twitter users from seeing certain content critical of the Israeli government. The prospect of a democracy ‘protected’ by the subjective judgment of Facebook and Twitter executives is not a pleasant one.
Matt Bartlett is a professional teaching fellow in the Faculty of Law.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from Newsroom Deplatforming Trump: Facebook and Twitter no angels of democracy 19 January 2021.
Alison Sims | Research Communications Editor
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