Free speech and big tech

Free speech and big tech

“In the end, two billionaires from California did what legions of politicians, prosecutors and power brokers had tried and failed to do for years,” said Kevin Roose in The New York Times. “They pulled the plug on President Trump.” Twitter last Friday permanently suspended the president’s account, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence”, after last week’s deadly riot on the Capitol. The day before, Facebook banned him at least until the end of his term. These companies like to pretend they act according to “due process”, but ultimately the decisions were made by their chief executives, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, under pressure from liberal opinion generally and their own employees. It “was a watershed moment in the history of social media”. Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and so on followed suit.

These bans “raise profound issues – of freedom of speech, and the precedents they may set for less free societies”, said the FT. The Russian dissident Alexei Navalny said they would be “exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world”. And critics are also right to say that the move came “cynically late”: Twitter has benefited greatly from Trump’s presence, along with his 89 million followers. Nevertheless, banning him was the right decision. “The president has glorified violence and egged on a challenge to US institutions that left five dead.” There are well-established limits to free speech, and Trump has a “unique power to undermine American democracy”. It is about time that social media firms took responsibility for the misinformation and hatred that they spew out, said Chris Stevenson in The Independent. Every media outlet has an obligation not to allow the incitement of violence. Equally, there is no legal responsibility for any privately owned platform to host anyone’s views. The president now sees himself as “a free speech martyr”, but he is no such thing. “Has there been any problem in hearing from Trump since the ban? No.”

“You don’t have to like Trump to find this terrifying,” said Fraser Myers in The Daily Telegraph. He may be a liar and a demagogue, but make no mistake: “if the tech monopolies can deny a platform to the leader of the free world, then they can deny a voice to anyone”. Thousands of his followers are being “digitally deplatformed” too, for making claims of election fraud. The big social media sites are “the 21st century’s public square”. To be barred is to become “a digital unperson”. These platforms have now “committed to making editorial decisions on a scale not seen before”, said The Sunday Times. Given the amount of content they host, this will prove “nigh on impossible, ruinously expensive and hugely controversial”. Who will “pass the Twitter test” and who, like Mr Trump, will be deemed beyond the pale? Joe Biden already has a huge task ahead of him. “What he should not have to do is restore his country’s commitment to the first amendment: freedom of speech.”

 

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