EDITORIAL: Social media firms must be held accountable
They are becoming a threat to democracy across the world
The scenes from Washington last week, when a mob incited by the sitting president of the US sought to attack legislators and violently reverse the results of an election, are still sending shock waves across the world.
Analysts and future historians will be debating the implications of Donald Trump’s coup for years. It's too early to say now how profoundly it will change the world’s oldest democracy, if at all. The US constitution dates back to 1789 and its opening words “we, the people” have inspired imitations across the world.
It was also admired for its checks and balances, aimed at preventing the emergence of the type of would-be dictator that Trump thought himself to be. The one positive from this disgraceful episode in American history is that those checks and balances have largely held. Judges, some of them appointed by Trump himself, pushed back against unfounded claims of electoral fraud after he was roundly beaten in the November 3 poll.
Officials in states, including Brad Raffensperger, the Republican who serves as the secretary of state for Georgia, withstood pressure and threats, often from their own side, and defended the integrity of the elections. Setting a mob on the Capitol to attack legislators was (hopefully) Trump’s last desperate attempt to overturn the will of the people.
Much has been said about the damage the episode has inflicted on US democracy and how it is perceived around the world. Another issue that has sparked discussion and will have long-term ramifications was the decision by the social media giants, Facebook and Twitter, to suspend and then completely ban Trump from their platforms, citing the threat of further violence.
In tune with the polarisation of the time, the reaction was sharp depending on who you asked. It’s censorship, declared Trump's supporters, oblivious to the fact that having a right to express oneself isn’t the same as being guaranteed access to a particular platform. The office of the president still has a Twitter account and he has access to media channels that have continued to cover what he said, though they’ve had to warn their viewers when he has attempted to use that to promote blatant lies and conspiracy theories.
Some of the more lighthearted observers have noted the absurd state of affairs in which the leader of the US, with access to nuclear codes, is now deemed too unstable to have accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
For the companies, that have in the past refused to take responsibility for content that appeared on their platforms on the grounds that they were not publishers, this could be a game changer. It is a line they have used when pressed on the publication of hateful material. They have previously refused to take down misleading material and outright lies.
It was less than eight months ago, in an apparent attempt to ingratiate his company to the Trump White House, that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that his company “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”.
The comments were made in an interview with Trump’s then favourite channel, Fox News, just as Twitter was beginning to put its foot down and fact check the US president’s claims about impending fraud in the upcoming elections. Not surprisingly, their change of tone, though they would argue that the conditions are different now with Trump openly inciting violence, is attracting attention from regulators.
Matt Hancock, the British health secretary who has been making the news in SA recently over a diplomatic spat about the so-called SA variant of Covid-19 and the UK decision to ban direct flights between the two countries, has made the point that the decision to ban Trump raised “a very important question” about social media companies “taking editorial decisions” and how they are then regulated.
It is high time that these organisations are treated like other publishers and are held responsible for what they disseminate. Their willingness to be conduits for harmful content without taking any responsibility has caused immense damage and poses a grave danger to democracy across the world.
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