Twitter has banned President Trump. So has Facebook. Amazon has shut down Parler, a competitor to Twitter, joined by Google and Apple. The tech giants point to the obvious need to combat the malignant forces that give rise to last week’s assault on the nation’s Capitol.
As logical and comforting as the bans might appear, it comes laced with danger. It’s not that the actions were wrong, it’s that the wrong people were making the decisions. The bans came from the companies, whereas they should come from government regulators. Otherwise the actions take on overt political cast. It infuses bias. It’s a means of making the companies the tools of the government, as they shape their policies to curry favor.
Allowing companies to be their own regulators invites problems beyond the immediate. It pushes the political extremes underground. It does not quell the potential for violence. To the contrary, it could give it the fuel it needs by placing limits, or banning altogether the right of free speech.
A better model is what is being used throughout the European Union. It’s become standard to force companies to moderate their activity, identify what constitutes illegal activity and set time limits for removing the questionable content. The government levies heavy fines on companies that fail to meet the requirements. The EU, for example, assess fines against the companies if they do not delete extremist content within an hour. Australia passed legislation in 2019 that imposes criminal penalties for social media companies involved in showing “abhorrent violence” along with financial penalties upwards of 10 percent of a company’s annual revenue. The Aussies created an eSafety Commissioner who can force the companies to take down abusive posts. The office can fine not only the companies that carry the offensive or threatening posts, but also the people who post them. Now, that’s effective.
The difference between the United States and these nations is that we self-regulate, they don’t. The effect is that our actions are interpreted as ones of self-interest, inconsistency and bias whereas theirs is more non-partisan, uniform, and, yes, more controlling.
It should be clear by now that what we have doesn’t work. But the tech giants can’t be the ones to keep the keys to the kingdom. They have had their chance and their failures mount by the day. Acting now to ban the president is salve to today’s wound but does nothing to protect us from what lurks ahead. And that’s where our heads should be.
What Twitter, et al, have done is to take that first step, to show that they are actually willing to bite the hand that has fed them for the last four years. Their actions are only a tiny bit altruistic. They had to do something or risk damage to their brands. Their decisions, however, are aimed more at doing as little as they have to and still remain the colossuses they are.
If we are to avoid more of what we’ve endured, then the job ahead is one that must be assumed by our elected leaders. They would be better to follow the lead of our European brethren and put in place a regulatory body that uniformly addresses the need to moderate the content carried by our social media companies. This cannot be a process controlled by the companies themselves.
by Emerson Lynn