The banning of US President Donald Trump from virtually every major social platform has sparked a whole new round of controversy, and debate over whether social media networks should be allowed to cut off access to users whose opinions they don’t agree with, and when that line has been crossed.
Which is a simplification of what occurred in this instance, but the fundamental concern remains – now that social media is such a significant part of our interactive landscape, do we need broader, overarching laws to ensure that it’s not abused to control what people are able to speak about, and the messaging that they share?
The expansion of that debate also includes the latest action taken against free-speech aligned platform Parler, which saw a huge increase in downloads in the wake of the Trump bans.
But Parler has since been removed from both the App Store and from the Google Play store, due to its failure to moderate posts which encouraged violence and crime.
Which makes sense, but again, where do the fundamentals of free speech fit into that same approach?
Here’s a quick rundown of the expanded impacts of, and responses to, the Trump social media bans.
Twitter shares drop 7%
While both Twitter and Facebook have been largely praised for taking more decisive action on Trump’s account, following his incendiary comments that ignited the Capital riots, Twitter could also be set to take a hit, due to concerns that, in losing one of its most popular users, that could impact overall usage.
As reported by Bloomberg, Twitter shares fell 7% after it announced the permanent suspension of Trump’s account, with analysts warning of ongoing usage impacts.
Trump has leaned on Twitter, in particular, where he has more than 88 million followers, to share his every thought, sparking widespread media coverage, and engagement with his tweets. Taking Trump out of the picture could reduce the relevance of the platform in some respects, which may have a bigger impact than many expect.
There are also concerns that Twitter’s action could invite further regulation of social media.
As per Bloomberg:
“The ban shows the company is making editorial decisions, and opens the door to more regulation of social media under the next administration.”
Which is a distinct possibility. Back in November, in an interview with The Atlantic, former US President Barack Obama highlighted his concerns with the way social platforms had facilitated the growth of misinformation, which he labeled ‘the single biggest threat to our democracy’.
“I don’t hold the tech companies entirely responsible, because this predates social media. It was already there. But social media has turbocharged it. I know most of these folks. I’ve talked to them about it. The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn’t require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there.”
Incoming President Joe Biden was VP to Obama, so while Obama’s opinions won’t necessarily drive policy, he will have an influence, at least in some capacity, on the President’s thinking.
It seems likely, then, that there will be a new round of discussions on the value of social media regulation, and implementing laws on what can be shared on social platforms. Which, in fairness, is what Facebook and others have been calling for for some time, creating an overall set of rules that all platforms need to adhere to.
And they’re not the only ones calling for legal change.
Germany and France voice opposition to Trump bans
As noted, while many have praised the social platforms for taking a stand against divisive, and dangerous speech on their platforms in banning Trump, the move has also raised concerns around the power that these platforms now wield in controlling speech.
And at least two world leaders have voiced their concerns on that front – first, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that she objects to the Trump social media bans. Merkel’s view is that that lawmakers should set the rules governing free speech, not private technology companies.
Other European politicians have noted similar – as reported by Bloomberg, France’s Junior Minister for European Union Affairs Clement Beaune said that he was shocked to see a private company make such an important decision.
“This should be decided by citizens, not by a CEO. There needs to be public regulation of big online platforms.”
The same stance has been echoed by many politicans and analysts around the world. While there is a clear and present concern around President Trump’s social media commentary, and how that contributed to the Capitol riots, the fact that social platforms are able to choose who gets silenced, now that they are such significant information providers, is a concern.
And it’s not just the social platforms that are controlling what people can say.
As noted, following the Trump bans on the major social platforms, free speech aligned platform Parler saw a massive surge in downloads. But its sudden rise was quickly curtailed, as both Apple and Google banned the app, and then Amazon booted the company from its web-hosting service.
In fact, according to Parler’s CEO John Matze, virtually every business has now dropped support for the app, leaving it in limbo for the time being.
As per Matze:
“Every vendor from text message services to email providers to our lawyers all ditched us too on the same day.”
Parler has since announced that it’s launching legal action against Amazon to force its reinstatement, accusing Amazon of political bias and anti-competitive behavior. Just like Apple and Google, Amazon pulled its support for the app due to its failure to police dangerous content.
It’s difficult to guess at what that means for the future of the app, but right now, the key platform left for those disillusioned by the Trump bans has been taken offline. Which is not the ideal outcome for free speech more broadly.
And this is the key point – no matter where on the political spectrum you may find yourself placed, it’s difficult not to feel at least some concern over the power being exerted by big tech in this instance. Of course, effective moderation is highly complex, and no company has ever been in a situation like this before, where they have reach and influence at such a scale that they can, in essence, silence a significant portion of any debate.
But that’s why we need new rules, and new regulations around social media usage, in order to create more specific frameworks for such decisions moving forward.
Whether that will resolve the larger issues at hand is also up for debate, but it seems that the time has now come – we now know, without a doubt, that social media can have a significant influence over people’s actions, and can be used in a negative way to cause wide-scale unrest.
That’s not something that can be overlooked or played down, and there should be some parameters over how, and when, these companies are able to act.
Expect this to be a key debate, around the world, throughout the rest of the year.