Observations of an Expat: Trump vs Twitter

President Trump has a point when he attacks Twitter for flagging his posts. But it reeks of hypocrisy.

The social media platforms have to date enjoyed pretty much a license to print money existence with very little in the way of a corresponding social responsibility.

Under a 1996 American law website operators — unlike traditional publishers — cannot generally be held responsible for content by their users. They are effectively a digital wall upon which the public paste fly posts. The social media sites argue that they have no more control of those posts than does the owner of a brick wall.

Of course, the brick wall owner has the right to tear down flyers which deface his property or which they consider morally or politically repugnant. Twitter, Facebook, etcetera, have fought against this traditional solution; mainly because their economic model requires a large number of controversial posts to attract viewers and advertisers.

The result has been a backlash against social media sites as they have become a legal safe haven for lies, hate speech, conspiracy theories, incitement to violence, racism and libel.

Several governments have passed legislation to force social media giants to remove hate speech from their platforms. The German Bundestag in January 2019 started to enforce a law that gives networks 24 hours to eject “obviously illegal“ postings. If they fail to do so, the platform providers face fines of up to $50 million. The British Parliament indicated that it would follow the German example. Other countries such as Russia and Vietnam, and even India, have introduced similar legislation, except that their definition of hate speech and fake news extends to criticism of the government, thus placing Facebook and Co in the on enviable position of becoming government censors or lose their commercially valuable position of global providers.

The social media giants are reluctantly making some efforts to comply with this backlash while at the same time fighting for free speech rights and their claim to digital wall status. It should be added that President Trump’s main target, Twitter, is headed by Jack Dorsey, who is an active Democrat who contributes generously to the American Civil Liberties Union.

All the above is the context in which Donald Trump has signed his executive order withdrawing protection if a social media network edits posts with a warning or label.

The decree came about because Twitter posted a warning notice on two of the president’s recent tweets — one related to postal ballots and the second about suppressing race riots in Minneapolis. They nearly did the same with his conspiracy murder theory involving former Congressman Joe Scarborough.

Trump’s decree was clearly the result of what he regarded as a personal attack on him by a social media company run by an avowed liberal. If Twitter had attached the same warning notices to a Biden tweet, the president would have been retweeting them to his 80 million followers.

I personally agree that the social media platforms should be subject to the same legal restrictions as the traditional media. But this should be balanced with the right and responsibility to remove offensive postings and attach warning notices — regardless of the source.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is a regular contributor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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One Comment

  • Simon Horner 1st Jun '20 - 5:09pm

    I assume you have missed out the word “not” in your last paragraph. If social media were to be subject to the same legal restrictions as the traditional media, they would be overwhelmed in many jurisdictions with libel claims and prosecutions for contempt of court. The traditional outlets (broadcasters and publications) can filter out unlawful material but the business models of operations like Facebook and Twitter make this impossible. They would be driven into bankruptcy by massive damages awards.

    Having taught the law of journalism to students long before the advent of social media, I still find it astonishing that the world should have turned a blind eye to the creation of what you rightly describe as “legal safe havens for lies, hate speech etc.”

    As someone whose use of “social media” is limited to occasional comments on blogs such as this one, I would not regret the demise of platforms that allow bile to be disseminated so widely and with such impunity. But I’m afraid it is far too late to put the genie back in the bottle.

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