Zooming into Facebook and Twitter suspension of Donald Trump — Why must we be worried?
When Donald Trump assumed office, he used his own Facebook and Twitter accounts instead of that of the President of the United States (POTUS), a trend started by Barack Obama. Must leaders use personal Facebook and Twitter accounts during their tenure as heads of state, what must become of those accounts after their tenure ends? Shouldn’t the rule applicable to emails also apply to Facebook and Twitter? Hillary Clinton was berated for using private emails at some point in her capacity as the Secretary of State, correctly so. All her official emails after she left office became the property of the government. Why must that general rule not apply to Facebook and Twitter? Donald Trump would have basically inherited wealth of information from his Facebook and Twitter accounts if they were not suspended. Over the period of 4 years he literally conducted the business of the state and foreign policy on Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, he unduly benefited from crowd sourcing as the President of the US, making him one of the most popular personalities on these platforms, a lucrative position these days. Trump was undoubtedly good for business too for both Twitter and Facebook. According to his former digital director Brad Parscale, Facebook was influential in their victory, not because it was tipping the scales with fake news, but because it helped generate the bulk of the campaign’s $250 million in online fundraising. “Our biggest incubator that allowed us to generate that money was Facebook,” Parscale retorted.
Views have varied since Facebook and Twitter announced their suspension of Donald Trump from their platforms. Last week Facebook announced that it decided after review to uphold the suspension. Twitter is also expected to make a similar pronouncement soon. Facebook and Twitter suspended Donald Trump from their respective platforms following violent events in the Capitol Hill on 06 January 2021. Hundreds of Trump supporters bridged security barriers of the Capitol Hill, intimidated those inside the building and destroyed property in the process. These events occurred during the joint seating of the congress to certify the results of the 2020 elections. Earlier on the same day Donald Trump addressed hundreds of his supporters and repeated claims that the elections were rigged. Trump’s address of his supporters earlier in the day is largely blamed for the subsequent violence at the Capitol Hill. The violence was condemned by politicians from both sides of the isle in US. Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook said he had decided that Trump’s attempts to incite violence and undermine the democratic process were grounds for an indefinite suspension. However some believe Facebook and Twitter used the opportunity to absolve itself from “a beneficial yet undesirable relationship” it enjoyed in the past with Trump. Trump’s suspension did not stop his surrogates, particularly his son Donald Trump Jnr, from making further inflammatory remarks and false claims regarding the validity of the election. Donald Trump Jnr hasnevertheless continued on with his tirade, indicting the media as a key contributor to Biden’s “illegitimate” win.
Notwithstanding reasons provided as well as obvious imperatives to suspend Donald Trump, the decisions deserve a second look. First, there is an acceptance in news media that offensive material should be removed as soon as they become apparent. There is also a general acceptance that each story must be judged on its own merits. Therefore, the prudent course of action would have been to deal with the apparent violations not a blanket gagging of Donald Trump. Second, the decision could set a serious precedence which could introduce new forms of censorship in the social media space in general. Importantly, this decision grants social media platforms unprecedented power; to control access to constituencies and voters in future. Social media platforms could become new gatekeepers. Giving such powers to social media could lead to infringement of basic human rights. Already, the uncontrolled monopoly Facebook and Twitter currently commands presents an additional challenge to democracy. Facebook and Twitter have become wholesale publishers. The distribution and dissemination of most news media publications largely depend on these platforms especially in places where internet is controlled by the state. This has led to unchecked powers and “privatization of freedoms” i.e. only those allowed and sanctioned by these platforms can publish. This in the process could deprive millions of people essential information necessary to make informed decisions.
There is a general acceptance that freedom of expression should not be absolute. Harmful information as already alluded, must be removed whenever is identified. Blanket gagging of individuals because of isolated violations shouldn’t lead to suspensions and gagging of individuals. Furthermore, Twitter and Facebook can’t be a player and referee at the same time. They should rather allow for the establishment of an independent body to perform the tasks of adjudication. The mainstream media is subject to independent ombudsman and similar institutions. These institutions assist the industry to adjudicate complaints and violations of media ethics. Why not establish similar platforms for social media? It is important especially as social media develops and matures.
Finally, whilst it is tempting to celebrate the suspension of Donald Trump, we should take a moment and ponder; today it be might be Trump who will it be tomorrow and how will we feel about it?