Public debate in the age of social networks

On 8 January 2021, Twitter decided to suspend the account of the outgoing US President after the assault of the US Capitol, considering Donald Trump has called for this violence through a series of tweets. 

  • On what basis did Twitter take this decision ?

Twitter took this decision based on the violation of the Twitter Rules. The platform judged that his tweets were in violation of the social media policy. Donald Trump’s private account therefore had to be immediately and permanently suspended from the service. Indeed, the US President accepted the platform Terms and Conditions of Use.

The platform also justified its decision by the risk of new incitements to violence. In its press release two tweets are particularly mentioned. The first one, mentioning that Donald Trump’s supporters « have a GIANT VOICE long into the future », shows he plans to continue to support, empower and shield those who believe he won the elections. Also, in his last tweet before the ban, the current President of the USA announced that he would not attend Joe Biden’s Inauguration on 20 January 2021. According to the social network, this announcement is interpreted by some of Donald Trump’s voters as proof of the illegitimacy of the election results, and makes the event a perfect target for further riots.

  • Freedom of speech and social media in the USA  

The first Amendment protects US citizens from State and Congressional violations of freedom of speech. This text cannot be opposed to a private company. In fact, US Courts have a tendency to reject challenges from users of social networks who pretend to have been censored. 

By contrast, in May 2018, the federal Court determined the President’s Twitter account is a “public forum”, and blocking people on the basis of this viewpoint is a violation of the First Amendment. Hence, Donald Trump cannot block the US citizens, while Twitter can prevent Americans from accessing his account by banishing him. A strong imbalance, which clearly shows the prominent role of social networks in the public debate.

  • Should there be an editorial responsibility for social networks ?

In the United States, Section 230 of the Communication decency Act provides a protection for platforms. Indeed, it states that providers or users of “interactive computer services”, which include internet service providers as well as platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, cannot be held liable for content that third parties create and distribute through their services. The platforms are treated as “content host”, in contrast to traditional media.  

According to Dominique Boullier, professor of sociology at Sciences-Po Paris, platforms such as Twitter or Facebook should be applied the status of a media in its own right. Therefore, they would assume that they have an editorial responsibility with regard to the content they allow to be disseminated.

Social networks as we know them today have become a space for public debate, especially when politicians use them to spread their ideas. It is not certain the GAFAMs accept this model : they have every interest in seeing cleavage content published and shared, as this allows them to sell advertisers an active audience, which is the key to their profitability.

Eventually, regulation of social networks is the solution. In Europe, the Digital services act is currently under discussion. It aims to regulate online hatred on platforms by striking a balance between freedom of speech and the right to dignity, which involves banning content that incites hatred.

Sources :

https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html

https://www.eff.org/issues/cda230

https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/le-temps-du-debat/les-reseaux-sociaux-doivent-ils-etre-des-editeurs

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