Twitter has purged 70,000 accounts of Donald Trump supporters, including QAnon followers and "Stop the Steal" activists since the Capitol incident which left five dead and many more wounded.
The social media giant, that was previously lauded by Trump as a tool that helped him win in 2016, has barred the outgoing president permanently, over what it called "the risk of further incitement of violence". In a related development, another major tech company, Facebook, announced that it would remove virtually all content mentioning "Stop the Steal" and alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election. The campaigns have raised concerns in the media as to whether social media companies still serve the principles enshrined in the US Constitution and guarantee the freedom of speech.
Was Twitter Created to Serve Democracy?
One of the cornerstone issues related to social media companies banning Trump is that the platforms, which were initially created as "public spheres", have stopped serving their original purposes, believes Jeffrey McCall, a media critic and professor of communications at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Instead, these companies are trying to assume the role of "referees" deciding "who gets to speak and who does not get to speak", according to him.
After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.https://t.co/CBpE1I6j8Y— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021
"When the First Amendment was created in the United States, the design was that we had a marketplace of ideas, and that the government would not intervene with the right of people to express themselves in terms of their religion, or their political points of view and that they could publish and speak freely", McCall points out.
The reason behind the companies censoring information is that these firms cannot be described as a "means of communication" akin telephone lines, explains Fernando Bruccoleri, a tech entrepreneur and a writer/collaborator for the American media portal BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.
"In the case of the United States, and specifically in relation to platforms or social networks such as Twitter or Facebook, the jurisprudential interpretation and doctrine are very clear", Bruccoleri says. "The social networks are not a public forum, but rather a private space in which users are subject to the internal rules established by the corresponding platform. Those who hold, then, the right to freedom of expression, are the social networks themselves".
When the NY Post was banned on Twitter for two weeks before an election for posting scandalous information about the Democratic candidate, the GOP Senate had multiple televised hearings about it.— Emma-Jo Morris (@EmmaJoNYC) January 9, 2021
And that's all. That's the extent of the action that was taken.
Now we're here.
How Do Social Media Bans Correlate With the First Amendment?
Twitter and Facebook's decision to ban Donald Trump over "incitement of violence", triggers the question as to on what grounds they made this verdict and how it correlates with the legal definition of direct incitement, McCall notes. "Raising concerns is one thing, calling people to act is another", he remarks.
Washington prosecutor Jeffrey Scott Shapiro argued in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that the president "did not commit incitement or any other crime". To illustrate his point Shapiro referred to Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg's 1969 case, in which the Supreme Court distinguished between "incitement" and "mere advocacy" of violence "not directed to inciting it", holding that Brandenburg's calls for violence were protected speech under the First Amendment.
To evade legal ambiguity any restrictions on free speech and freedom of expression imposed by governments and employers must be set out in laws that must in turn be clear and concise so everyone can understand them, suggests Kevin Curran, a professor of cyber security at Ulster University.
"People imposing the restrictions must be able to demonstrate the need for them, and they must be proportionate", he stresses. "All of this has to be backed up by safeguards to stop the abuse of these restrictions and incorporate a proper appeals process".
Is There Room for Freedom of Expression on Social Media Amid Political Battles?
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media giants, meanwhile, have been increasingly subjected to pressure from the left and the right side of the American political spectrum. The liberals lashed out at the social media giants for what they said was allowing "hate speech" and "amplify[ing] misinformation", while conservatives including Donald Trump criticised the platforms for what they said was suppression of free speech, selective censoring, and banning of right-wing accounts.
In December 2020, the president vetoed a bipartisan defence spending bill after Congress failed to strip the Silicon Valley giants of legal protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 following Twitter beginning to editorialise his tweets. The US Congress, however, later overrode Trump's veto.
Section 230 gives legitimacy and at the same time leaves social platforms and websites unpunished for the content published by its users, explains Bruccoleri, adding that the practicality of Section 230 is very important.
"For example, Twitter is not responsible for a publication that incites hatred from one of its users, but it also gives them the power to choose the mechanisms they consider to edit or veto them according to their own criteria - the latter being important - as has happened with Trump's messages. It also protects websites or blogs, in which their editors are not responsible for the comments left by their visitors".
Given that Americans are living in times of deepening partisan polarisation there's a danger that social media will be turned into political tools for attacks against either party, according to Jeffrey McCall. He refers, in particular, to Big Tech's suspending Trump supporters' accounts and going after a competing social platform, Parler, under the pretext that it is being used to promote violence.
Twitter & FB ban accounts. "It's not censorship, you can create your own app".— David Sacks (@DavidSacks) January 10, 2021
Then Google & Apple ban apps. "It's not censorship, create your own website".
Then Amazon bans web hosting. "It's not censorship, create your own..."
What? Your own internet? Just so you can tweet?
"If there are specific threats of violence - those are matters for law enforcement to intervene and address the people who would promote violence through social media", McCall says. "But I'm not sure that we need corporations putting themselves in the position to referee that. Censorship generally does not work in a free society. Any democracy needs to be strong enough to withstand the onslaught of competing messages".
"If we don't take the initiative and get out of this polarisation, it will be too late", warns Fernando Bruccoleri. "Freedom of expression is at risk by authoritarian governments or by corporations that use us as their merchandise".
For his part, Kevin Curran believes "the role of social media in modern politics should be to simply act as a 'sounding board' where politicians can communicate with their supporters and supporters can voice their opinions – all however without breaching the abuse guidelines in place by all social media networks".