2021 has commenced, and right when we thought the world is finally falling back into its orbit, America took us by (no) surprise with the pro-Trump supporters storming the Capitol. With his incitement of violence prior to the event, Donald Trump was banned from multiple social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. However, why didn’t these media moguls take action against the disinformation the President had spread within these past four years? Are the bans the solution to the fervent dissemination of fake news and conspiracies, or are they merely the last straws to the already corrupted social media ecosystem?
How Trump went invisible (online)
The chain of events started after Trump tweeted out to his supporters: “They are trying to steal the election.” Soon enough, QAnon conspiracists and far-right activists were riled up and founded the Facebook group “Stop the Steal,” with more than 300,000 members. On January 6, the Electoral College vote count day, it was their time for action. With their MAGA hats, Confederate flags, and fur costumes, Trump’s supporters rioted in one of the most secured establishments in America, attempting to launch violent attacks on the Congresspeople.
After the horrendous event panned out, Twitter immediately suspended Trump’s account @realDonaldTrump due to the “risk of further incitement of violence.” This bold move is not without consequences, as Twitter’s stocks plummeted over 6% following its announcement. Regardless, Jack Dorsey, the mastermind behind Trump’s beloved Twitter, believed that it was the “right decision” but a “dangerous move” as the Internet shouldn’t be controlled by any corporation. Facebook subsequently banned Trump’s page and the phrase “Stop the Steal” indefinitely, where Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s COO, was happy that Facebook decided to freeze his account. And yes, Donald Trump threw a tantrum over this fiasco. He went “ballistic” and scrambled to find alternative platforms to survive this drought after the constant outpour of disinformation.
Was this the “right decision”?
These substantial decisions from social media conglomerates did not go unnoticed by both supporters and critics. Many were happy with these long-overdue moves as the “day of reckoning” has finally descended on politics, and social media have the potential to “restore truth and decency to our democracy and democracies around the world.” Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, simply tweeted with a check mark emoji, replying to her tweet about banning Trump on Twitter. The shade is real.
However, there are more foes than friends for this unprecedented decision, as U.S. politicians and world leaders heavily criticized the companies for “censoring” the President and impeding free speech. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who shares an icy relationship with the President, critiqued how this decision was supposed to be in legislators’ hands, not private corporations. The American Civil Liberties, a vocal critic of Trump, also argued how the companies’ “unchecked power should concern everyone.” Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition figure, denounced the move as “an unacceptable act of censorship […] based on emotions and personal political preferences.”
How social media corporations are obstructing real changes
While it is fairly easy to dismiss these moves as violating freedom of speech and lowkey censoring politicians, a standard of what content should be allowed on these widely used platforms is desperately needed, especially when billions of people are exposed to them daily. As a society, we don’t want misinformation and incitement of violence to go haywire. Regardless of their political motives, social media tycoons are responsible for facilitating a healthier environment within their volatile systems by keeping their users accountable. Especially when their platforms are constantly used to amplify political narratives.
They always seem a bit too late.
And that’s when content moderation comes into play. However, these profit-centric corporations have not always put on their best fronts, succumbing to the model that “promotes conspiratorial, fake, and violent content” with their algorithm that drives their business forward. These same companies also perpetuate and foster the problem by selling ads with addictive clickbaits and conspiratorial content. They always seem a bit too late. For instance, Facebook was slow in blocking QAnon communities as well as removing coronavirus fake news videos after it had already been viewed more than 20 million times. The damage had already been done and could not be reversed. These companies are genuinely not doing enough, yet they are the ones with the power to make a difference.
Can Social Media Platforms Do Better?
According to European Commissioner Thierry Breton, these companies lack the legal clarity of their dealings with illegal content, leaving the world “with too many questions about when content should or shouldn’t be blocked.” Clearer guidelines and tighter moderation are proven to be the best solutions to these perplexing yet foundational issues. And, experts no longer take the companies’ operational scale and overflowing content as valid excuses. Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University, simply stated, “It’s a myth, and it’s not because it’s impossible” and called for more content moderators: “Enforcing the rules can be done; it just costs money,” she said.
So how high are these companies willing to pay? What else are they willing to risk for profit? What will the prices be for them and society? Certainly not having to permanently ban politicians for spewing lies and hatred on their networks. Tick-tock because your time is running out.