In the past week, one of the major developments that caught huge attention all across the world was the violence that occurred in Washington DC when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol which took few human lives. But this incident suddenly got overshaded by the decision made by the tech giants like Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Most of the social media companies, one can say all except one or two, decided to ban the account of President Trump in one or another form. Twitter banned the account of Trump permanently whereas Facebook and Instagram (also owned by Facebook) suspended his account at least until January 20. Snapchat, Twitch, Tiktok, etc. disabled his account. Amazon, Google, Apple, etc. have banned Parler, the platform used by Trump’s supporters to gain support, share views and many think this platform was used for Capitol violence.
Out of which the one which generated much debate all across the world was the ban by Twitter, where President Trump had an account for nearly 12 years with 89 million followers. Technically, this made President Trump handicapped in the social media circle. However, this did not come one-sided. In the next 6 days, Twitter lost more than 10 % of its share value costing it billion dollars. Facebook too lost 4 % of its share costing more than a billion dollars. Similarly, the share of Alphabet (parent company of Google), Apple, and Amazon each lost at least 2 % of their share on January 11. This loss may be temporary, and these tech giants may bounce back commercially soon.
The real questions are raised on both sides and both sides are equally valid. The first argument comes that it was too late to take action against President Trump who was successfully using Twitter to reach his supporters and get new supporters. The critic of Trump says he used this platform to spread lies and gain support! It may be true, but it is not the right-wing alone, even the left-wing, religious fundamentalists, conservatists, etc. all of them time to time misused social media, so blaming one group is one-sided.
The two controversial tweets that Trump tweeted were: – “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape, or form!!!” – “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.” Twitter claims these two tweets instigated violence.
Moreover, at the same time there were tweets which were more harsh and violent by others. The other side feels that banning the account of President Trump is against freedom of speech. This may be right to some extent, though freedom of speech comes with some kind of responsibility for society. Freedom of speech should not call to kill innocent people just for political, ideological, or religious beliefs.
Supporters of Trump are arguing that he had not called directly to go and cause violence in Capitol, so it’s not fair to read extrapolating his above tweets and directly reasoned for the unfortunate incident in the Capitol. However, some may not agree with it as the speech of a leader may misguide some people at the ground level. In old days political rallies and print media used to play a great role in political activism, which subsequently was taken by electronic media and television, who were shaping the leadership.
But in the days of social media, Twitter and Facebook are shaping the leadership. It is getting more and more popular to shape a leader in the USA, India, Europe, and most of the democratic countries. Doing so, political leaders are directly able to reach millions of their supporters within minutes, more than they could do in a rally or through television or print media.
Moreover, sometimes electronic or print media or editor were able to manipulate or tweak the statement of the political leader/s which is not possible in social media, which give direct communication with the supporters. So the demand for such regulation in social media is not unjust rather leaders should be more responsible in the social media.
A very small section of people think this highly controversial banning of Trump’s account is nothing to do with his tweet that might have caused violence in the Capitol. Trump is one of the major moneymakers for Twitter and other social media platforms by bringing lots of ads, as his tweets or posts were among the most engaged tweets or posts by his supporters as well as his critics.
In fact, during the last 4 years, the Twitter account of Trump has made more than 70 million new followers. There were many appeals to ban tweets/posts of Trump earlier for 4 years, no actions were taken as these social medial companies benefitted commercially a lot from his tweets. This group think the actual reasons is that President-elect Joe Biden has earlier called for a law on social media to stop hate-mongering. He had also planned to bring antitrust cases against Google and Facebook.
Banning President Trump’s account could be just to impress incoming president Biden by these social media companies to avoid such law and continue business as usual. For example, a company like Twitter has less than 5000 employees, thus, most of the individual tweets/posts cannot be monitored by its employees and are done technologically by using Artificial Intelligence or Data Science.
There are worst and violent tweets than President Trump had tweeted recently that easily evade due to technological limitations. For instance, words tuned with data science can be evaded by replacing “o” with “0” or putting a “*”. Thus, by banning President Trump these social media companies want to be in the good book of President-elect Biden.
Nevertheless, the important concern for the common man should be whether a statement of an individual private citizen crosses the line of freedom of speech or not, who should decide? Should it be a private company or the court? There is a significant challenge in trusting private companies now a days.
We may not like President Trump or his ideology, that does not mean the private company or capitalist market will decide freedom of speech. If the most powerful man on the planet receives such treatment then what about a common man? Therefore, as president-elect Biden has advocated, India must bring a new law to regulate social media where the role of the court and democratic system will prevail over digital capitalists.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Digambara Patra, M.Phil, PhD
Professor Department of Chemistry
American University of Beirut
( Images from the net )