Opinion makers or free speech platforms?
This week something unthinkable happened in the world of social networks. Twitter warned that three Trump messages contained lies or promoted violence.
Last Tuesday, the president tweeted that voting by mail in California was “substantially fraudulent.” Fraud has been found and denounced over the years when ballots are mailed, but Twitter added a link under the tweet that read: “These are the facts about voting by mail,” where the president’s statement was corrected. Unfortunately, such a correction was uncalled for, not only because there has been fraud when mail-in ballots are used, but also because Twittter’s “correction” limited itself to a CNN article.
Trump exploded on Thursday and later signed an executive order to block one of the Internet pillars since 1996: social networks cannot be denounced or sued by what users write.
Contrary to what happens in traditional media, platforms on the Internet are exempt from controlling everything that is published. If an article threatens a citizen with death, the person responsible is the newspaper itself. If that threat is launched in the form of a tweet, Twitter is not.
But Twitter did not stop there. That same Thursday, the platform censored a tweet from Trump for the “glorification of violence.” The tweet said that “when the looting begins, the shooting begins.” The phrase comes from a Miami commissioner in 1967, in the midst of fighting for civil rights. The tweet could be seen after reading the Twitter warning. War was declared.
It was not the first time that Trump brushed against breach of Twitter’s community rules, which are as clear as mud water.
Platforms see their role in public debate grow. Twitter, Facebook or YouTube were important tools in 2012, when Barack Obama was reelected, but none was key. However, lately, social media platform relevance has grown. The 2016 elections were the greatest example. The use of Facebook advertising by the Trump campaign was certainly one of the keys to his victory.
Just as the US law of 1996 prevents platforms from being denounced for the content published by their users, they are also asked to restrict “in good faith” any material that seems “obscene, lewd, libidinous, profane, excessively violent, stalker or in any way objectionable. ” So Trump’s Tweet was banned, but Twitter and Facebook leave a door open to pornography, terrorism and disinformation by mainstream media.
Twitter has used the coronavirus pandemic to exercise even more censorship. Social media are now banning content posted by users that go against the “common wisdom” and what health authorities say regarding health issues. Social media have deployed all kinds of new and more intrusive measures.
Twitter claims to be a platform in favor of freedom of expression, but its deliberate option for years has been to create methods, like labels or curtains, that ultimately censors content.
The action against Trump is the final step. It is difficult to go back.
President Trump put the same messages on Facebook and they are still there, without any warning. “Facebook should not be the arbiter of truth,” said Mark Zuckerberg after Twitter’s first action. Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, responded that his move does not make them “arbiters of the truth.” Its community regulations are very strict with two things: coronavirus and elections.
Facebook has community rules at heart that are very similar to those of Twitter, although it does not have the option of adding tags: Facebook leaves a post or deletes it, which is not much better than Twitter’s policies.
This is where all the grays and impossible debates begin about what each network does. Zuckerberg has recounted in a post how that decision is still in his hands and how perhaps one day he will press the red button: “We believe that if a post incites violence, it should be suppressed. regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician.”
But the actions by Twitter and Facebook show a very different situation. Violence has been incited by people who hate Trump, for example, who have displayed decapitated heads of the US President, and those displays have been allowed to circulate uncensored.
In most cases, Zuckerberg has decided not to censor, while Dorsey has decided that something should be done; but almost always against conservative media.
Experts have different opinions. To those closest to journalism, it seems that this balance between freedom and the application of policies is the most correct:
“Many experts recommend a combination of clear policies, consistent enforcement, and disinformation responses that focus on limiting interactions and providing information, rather than direct suppression,” says Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
“We are not talking about censorship, but about consistent content moderation and policy enforcement,” he adds. The problem is that social media, as content platforms, should not be regulators, editors or content creators.
Some jurists believe that Twitter has overstepped its bounds. Twitter has been wrong. They’ve gone into a garden by themselves,” says David Maeztu, a lawyer specializing in Internet law.
We are on a very fuzzy and complex line. The moment you add something, you’re altering the content.
Where is the limit of what networks can add or delete? Who exactly says it and how can a user complain or report? If they are not publishers, they should limit themselves as much as possible. But how much exactly? If they are publishers, they should take more content out of circulation, which would make their business unfeasible.
For social networks, the law must continue as it is. But how do they ensure that they are a place where harassment, lies and mess do not reign? It is an unsustainable balance and one that we will discuss for years. There is probably no perfect moderation policy, which is why social networks should allow users to decide what they read and what they dismiss. Social media users, not platform moderators will take care of fake news.
A politician like Trump needs these networks because without them his message would not reach the electorate in the same way. The freedom to say everything you say without a filter is essential.
We are deeply concerned about how the right to freedom of expression has been repeatedly violated by the main social media platforms by censoring many of the contents that both our public officials and members are publishing.
This electoral year in the USA is tremendously decisive. The Trump campaign has spent $62 million between Facebook and Google and the pre-campaign has not even started. Biden is going for 22 million. But it is not a question of money. The main problem is social network regulation.
Trump’s executive order is unlikely to have practical consequences. But he may have others: Trump and the rest of Twitter and Facebook users want to keep things as they are and make sure that everyone has a space to exercise their free speech. When it comes to expressing our opinions, there must be no middle. People are constitutionally entitled to have and express and opinion and it is no one’s responsibility or duty to restrict it.
Despite their power, these platforms are still private companies that decide what each user can put in and, also, who can have an account. Facebook allows political announcements without checking if they are true and is laxer with the discourse of politicians. We still do not know their motives or consequences with transparency, and this is the core of the problem. They can choose to allow content or to ban it. But these distinctions bring platforms closer to acting as means and deciding on discourse. They should decide what they want to be: social media platforms or editorial entities.
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Luis R. Miranda is an award-winning journalist and the founder & editor of The Real Agenda News. His career spans over 23 years in every form of news media. He writes about environmentalism, education, technology, science, health, immigration and other current affairs. Luis has worked as on-air talent, news reporter, television producer, and news writer.