In the last week of May, Donald Trump threatened to have protestors taking part in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Minneapolis shot, and made false claims about the processes used in US elections. He did so, not in the public space of a press conference, but on privately owned websites – Twitter and Facebook – which have content policies to guard against inciting violence and promoting misinformation.
Twitter labelled Trump’s statements with warnings that they violated the site’s community standards, and turned off the retweet function for them. Facebook decided to leave the posts untouched, although it did suspend an account that posts verbatim copies of the president’s writings for “glorifying violence”. Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout in protest. Other prominent detractors include the leaders of three civil rights groups in the US, more than 140 Facebook-funded scientists, and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Jack Dorsey famously declared Twitter to be “the free speech wing of the free speech party”; while Mark Zuckerberg has always maintained that Facebook is a platform, rather than a publisher. Both approaches allow social media companies to take a laissez-faire attitude to their users’ content while profiting from the attention it brings.
But social media companies are now coming under pressure to perform a greater regulatory role. “This puts them in a tremendous conundrum,” says Joshua Tucker, professor of politics and co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at NYU. The American left is demanding more regulation, but if the platforms are seen as more heavy-handed with right-wing content, the right cries anti-Conservative bias. “Taking away the Twitter account of the president of the United States – there is no way that that would not be seen as an incredibly partisan move, even if he absolutely deserved it,” says Tucker.
The president has made it clear that he would try to legislate against a platform that edited or deleted him. Trump’s immediate response to Twitter’s flagging of his inflammatory posts was to call for a legal review of Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which absolves any “interactive computer service” of responsibility for the content its users post. Trump’s executive order argues that if a social network flags or otherwise edits content, it becomes a publisher, as culpable for what appears on its platform as any newspaper or TV network.
The executive order has described as unconstitutional and based on a misreading of the current law. FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks has indicated that the organisation will not succumb to pressure from the president. Others have pointed out that it is ironic in that if Section 230 was amended, much stricter editing of posts would be inevitable, and the Tweeter-in-chief’s posts would be far less likely to see the light of day.
Some Democrats believe that for Twitter to confiscate Trump’s favourite toy would strike Trump a grievous blow. “Removing the posts hits him where it hurts,” asserts a recent New York Times op-ed written by a member of the publication’s editorial board. But social media is not the real world, and media outlets across the world would amplify Trump’s statements, tweeted or not – and the more bizarre and offensive, the better.
But others opposed to Trump say the idea of removing him or his posts would be couterproductive. Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who broke the Edward Snowden leaks and who has covered social media and free speech issues for years, describes the idea as “the most inane rationale. He is the President of the United States and that isn’t going to change if you kick him off Twitter.
“He’s always going to have a massive megaphone, and I would personally rather have him vent on Twitter… because what he thinks is important to know, even when you wish it weren’t the case.”
Facebook and Twitter, have pointed out that it’s in the public interest to know whether any president plans on deploying physical force against protesters.
In the past, depriving provocateurs of a platform has had the effect of making their ideas appear more powerful, and giving weight to their arguments for “free speech”. As a lawyer, Greenwald represented the free speech rights of such groups, and found that they actively welcomed censorship: “they knew that nothing would more effectively strengthen their cause.” A full-scale battle with social platforms would strengthen Trump’s pitch to his base as an anti-establishment figure.
And while Trump would survive and even prosper if deleted, others – particularly marginalised groups – would suffer as a result of more proactive moderation.
In 2014, the debate over freedom of speech issue focused on whether an ISIS video showing the beheading of James Foley should be removed from social media or not. The goalposts have shifted dramatically in six years. A debate over graphic depictions of violence or hate speech has been replaced by woolly terms such as “harm”, “misinformation” or even “divisive”, used to designate speech that exists outside a tightly cordoned passage of acceptable discourse.
The loudest voices for more aggressive controls over online speech come not from the authoritarian right, but from those who would otherwise define themselves as liberal or progressive. While the fight for “free speech” has been disingenuously subverted by the right in recent years, freedom of expression has always been a fundamental left-wing ideal.
“This is where the whole left/right paradigm drives me up the wall,” says activist and spoken word poet, Courtney Stoddart. “Because you have ‘liberals’ calling for traditionally fascistic practices like censorship.” In the US, the free speech and liberal censorship movements have arrived at the same conclusion: Joe Biden has confirmed that if elected, he too would immediately revoke Section 230, dramatically curtailing freedom of expression on social platforms.
“The question becomes, at this abstract level – do you want to hand over to giant, powerful corporations, the right to regulate political speech?” says Joshua Tucker. By admonishing social media giants and insisting that they “do more”, we’re emboldening them to take matters into their own hands. “When it comes to the left-wing or liberal censorship sentiment, there’s this extremely inconsistent belief system,” says Greenwald. Liberals will denounce Facebook and its ilk as “terrible institutions” – “but on the other hand, they somehow convinced themselves that the same evil institutions are going to exercise censorship power for benevolent or magnanimous ends.”
Counterintuitively, the people arguing for stricter controls over Trump’s speech might end up giving his administration more control over what speech is allowed to remain on social media platforms. Discretionary content removal on Twitter and Facebook is already becoming a proxy for government censorship; both companies work with bodies closely affiliated with the US political establishment to decide what content to act on. In 2017, it came to light that Facebook was co-operating with 95 per cent of the Israeli government’s requests to remove pro-Palestinian content, as well as unrelated content removal requests from the US government.
In the UK, at a recent Online Harms parliamentary committee, MPs lambasted representatives from Facebook and Twitter for not removing President Trump’s incendiary posts, but also appeared to suggest that social platforms should remove any critique of the government’s coronavirus lockdown measures. Conservative MP Philip Davies angrily confronted the Google representative present: “If I uploaded something onto YouTube which basically argued that all of this lockdown is ridiculous, we shouldn’t be having a lockdown at all, what would happen?” The accusation of offence or misinformation is clearly one that some in government see as useful.
The notion of acceptable speech is in constant flux. “The definition of what could be considered outside the norms of decency changes over time,” says Tucker. “Take things like gay marriage, or marijuana legalisation, or trans rights.” Republican state legislators argued in 2017 that Black Lives Matter should be classed as a “hate group” in the US, partly because of its “hatred for the police”. If they had had their way, there’s a good chance that Facebook and Twitter would have blacklisted the group in line with US government guidance and that today, #BLM posts would be more likely to be removed. A Cornell University study found that the posts of black Americans are already more likely to be classified as hate speech than posts by white users.
“It’s very important to think,” says Tucker, “if you are a progressive – what level of progressive voices could potentially be silenced by these kinds of decisions?”
The views Trump espouses on social media are often vile. But to be provoked by them is part of the Trump media strategy, and to participate with Trump’s fight with (and on) social media is to be drawn into a culture war he feels comfortable fighting. Ultimately, social media is nothing more than a distraction from the horror of Trump’s power in the real world.