Thoughts on Twitter vs. Trump

In a rather exciting development, Twitter have extended their time-limited suspension of US President Trump’s @realdonaldtrump account … indefinitely.

Social media in America is protected by something called section 230 – 26 words forming part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that says services aren’t treated as publishers of content produced by their users. That means twitter aren’t going to be taken to court for something Trump’s said, even if it’s illegal. There are a few exception for things like copyright but the general idea is that it’s not social media companies’ fault if their millions of users do a few illegal things and that sites can moderate without being taken to court by users. Of course, it doesn’t mean the wider media won’t mercilessly berate companies for not doing enough to stop users posting illegal content and impersonating other users. The court of public opinion isn’t swung by legislation.

There’s an interesting idea about a generational and political spectrum shift between the ‘freedom to’ [say what you want] and ‘freedom from’ [having hurtful things said about you]. There are better examples but you get the picture. In recent years, the ‘freedom to’ ground seems to have been taken by the right and ‘freedom from’ by the left. The right want freedom to hold arms, the left from freedom from being shot. The language does seem to set groups and perpetrators and victims, which doesn’t help bringing people together to gather consensus but we’re not the French and clearly can’t control the English language.

The Twitter issue is that trump wants the freedom to say whatever he wants, even if it’s not true and incites violence. ‘The left’ want freedom from having that disinformation spread and causing violence like at the capitol.

It’s clearly worrying that social media companies have the power to censor, especially since they’ve never been able to show that their processes are particularly efficient or robust. Think misleading adverts not being taken down, accounts being locked because they were started before the user was 13 … even if they’re now in their 20s, and not being able to develop a decent Mac client. (They’re too busy breaking and limiting the growth of much better third-party ones.)

Unfortunately, their power to say ‘not our content; not our problem’ allows misinformation to spread. Misinformation has surely been a problem since we were drawing on cave walls, but editorial teams fight to keep it out of the media because of the reputational harm of reporting something shown to be blatantly incorrect.

At the moment social media firms don’t have to consider those issues too deeply because it’s not their content. They just have to balance shouts of ‘censorship!’ from one faction with the potential damage to their reputation that comes from flat-earthers taking over their platform.

In Trump’s case, he doesn’t have a free speech issue, he has a truth issue. He still has the freedom to speak anywhere. He still has his official twitter account – the one he’s supposed to use so that it can be archived under the Presidential Records Act – but he doesn’t like that one. They didn’t cut him off without warning. He can still speak, he just doesn’t have the existing audience he once did.

Free speech legislation generally protects the right to speak out against government. The first amendment prevents the government restricting most forms of speech. But twitter isn’t a branch of government yet. Indeed the first amendment protects the moderation of content by social media firms. You won’t be locked up by Twitter PD for breaking the community standards, you just lose your account.

On a different note, Twitter is an independent company (remember B1?) and has no obligation to allow anyone to make an account and publish on their site. Theoretically they could introduce a rule that says ‘you can’t have an account if your name is Donald J. Trump’. No doubt it would be frowned upon, but I’m not aware that ‘being Donald Trump’ is a protected characteristic anywhere in the world.

If we pretend that Twitter is a newspaper. Trump works for them, writes something factually incorrect and is fired (sounds strangely familiar). He wouldn’t be able to claim that his free speech was being curtailed. He just lost a job because he was bad at it. He has every right to apply for a new job. He can shout on the street or in front of parliament/the capitol. He just doesn’t have the audience he once did and that’s a consequence of not following the rules.

Consider every other media form – they’re all owned by someone and very few are politically neutral. Even those who are officially neutral end up being (usually) a bit left leaning because of the kind of people an ‘impartial’ news service attracts cough BBC cough.

The British media have an enormous impact on our politics. Our newspapers are owned or controlled by a small group of rich old white men. They may not be as loyal to the parties as they once were but it’s still pretty obvious which side they’re batting for most of the time.

Clearly it would be a very different situation if social media companies were on Trump’s ‘side’ but that seems fairly unlikely for the time being. Twitter, Facebook and whatever Google’s doing today have been created by the (relatively) young, are engaged with by a younger audience than traditional media, and so those attracted to work for it are far more likely to align with the left and political centre than the right.

It’ll be interesting to see how judiciously this adapted approach to their policy for high-profile accounts will be used in future…



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