Donald Trump has had, to say the least, a complicated history with social media. He has been a frequent recipient as well as the initiator of boundless social media abuse. He has built upon the legacy of the first “Social Media President” – Barack Obama – and used Twitter to circumvent the main stream media, push his own messages, and even create policy.
However, it seems his favourite platform has fallen from grace as he signed an executive order targetting social media companies, narrowing their legal protection, after they fact-checked one of his tweets. The legal protection of social media is a problem that affects all of us and the question needs to be raised: Is this a fight to protect free speech, or to destroy it?
Social Media War: What is the Issue?
The battle over social media regulation is hardly a new issue. The role of large internet services like Facebook, Google, or Twitter has been called into question many times before and there have been repeated calls for stricter regulation. The main issue: Are they platforms or are they publishers?
The main difference between these two categories is the way they deal with their content. Publishers, like the New York Times for example, have a responsibility for what appears on their pages. They have an editor, a strict set of rules, and most of the time a clear political bias which limits what appears on their website. Platforms, on the other hand, claim to be just common carriers, like the phone companies. They only provide the virtual space but the content is unfiltered and generated en masse by users. Quite simple in principle. However, even platforms curate their content to a certain extent and make sure nothing “outside the bounds of reason” appears on their site. The problem comes when they take their editorial role a bit too far.
Ultimately, there is no such thing as objectivity. Whether we admit it or not, we are all biased and it leaks into the way we approach information. The Silicon Valley companies are as likely to fall prey to the narrative fallacy as any traditional media publishers. And that is where their obligation to provide free platform for ideas clashes with their desire for editorial discretion. The vagueness of the rules and the many times arbitrary way the social media giants decide on who gets to have their voice heard has led many to believe that they are guided by political bias and that, as platforms, they should not be allowed to limit free speech.
Censors Sensing Seizure of Censorship Census
Even if we took bias out of the equation, the social media business model is not really conducive to the creation of a free expression forum. The majority of their revenue comes from advertising, which creates a conflict of interest. Social media have shown that they are very quick to cave under a threat from the advertisers. What’s more, they are not above selling our information to political campaigns or catering to the censorship and propaganda needs of authoritarian governments in order to maximise returns to their investors. The impact of social media on our lives is immense and their methods are certainly a cause for concern.
So, is there a good reason for Trump’s recent actions? Well, revamping of platform rules is definitely not an unpopular path to take. Even Mark Zuckerberg has openly called for stricter rules for social media. While it may just be a clever self-preservation tactic, it shows that there has to be a change in the way social media filter their content. Making sure they are responsible for their actions, abide by a clear set of rules, and stop discriminating based on their own political bias is an important step forward. Limiting the seemingly self-serving social media can also be a popular political move that brings the issue of censorship to the forefront of public attention.
However, the element of self-interest and executive imposition places this move in a morally rather grey area. As most people, Trump was happy to exploit the political opportunities the social media provide up until the point their censorship touched him personally. Hastily forging an executive order after being fact-checked on Twitter is pretty far from good optics for the president. Additionally, exposing the companies to extra liability like this can lead to even stricter censorship and prompt the internet companies to censor anything with even the slightest potential to offend someone in fear of penalization. A relatively just cause for a needed change can therefore completely backfire because of short-sightedness and careless implementation of law. But hey, what else is new in politics…