Trump’s Social Media Ban Reveals The Failings Of The Information Age
The day after Donald Trump’s cheerleading encouraged a troupe of YMCA rejects to storm the Capitol and prompted Twitter and Facebook to suspend his accounts, New York Times columnist, Aaron Ross Sorkin, made the following observation:
So Trump has access to the nuclear codes but he can’t Tweet or post to Facebook.
He has a point. It seems like a strange failure of priorities to allow a man who we’ve deemed too irresponsible to use social media to retain control over weapons which could end all life on the planet. But the comparison undervalues the power that unregulated access to a platform of millions of people provides.
To be clear, I’d also feel safer if Donald Trump’s finger was on the ‘Tweet’ button instead of on THE button, but the attack on Wednesday, and the five deaths that resulted from it, prove that both of them have the potential to cause real-world harm.
In a blog post explaining the ban, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg began by saying the following:
The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden.
The thing is, anybody who’s been paying even the most fleeting attention was aware that this was his plan from the night of the election. Or even before. In fact, both platforms created special protections for heads of state and seemingly for Trump specifically, which allowed him to continue lying to his millions of followers without interruption or consequences. The question isn’t whether it was right to ban him (it was), it’s why it took so long.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of social media when using it as a mere mortal. Most of us get a retweet here, a “like” there, and the worst that happens if we post something stupid is that we’re quietly unfollowed. It’s not like that for the big names. In 2018, a popular football-focused account posted this video illustrating what happens when posting to 8 million followers. Donald Trump’s Twitter account had 88.7 million followers before being suspended.
At that scale, Twitter and Facebook aren’t just places where people post reaction-gifs and stalk their exes, they’re platforms which allow their owners to speak directly to an audience which is larger than the population of most countries. There are no controls over who gains access to those platforms, and even worse, what little control does exist is held by billionaires who are financially motivated to keep incendiary and misleading (read: engaging) content on their platforms.
That’s not just idle speculation. In 2018, during a hearing regarding Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytical election fraud scandal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted that Facebook’s official policy allows politicians to spread misinformation through paid ads as long as they don’t specifically call for violence or threaten immediate harm. Facebook also has policies which specifically exempt elected officials and heads of state — arguably the people who can do the most damage by spreading misinformation — from their rules on doing so.
Twitter has a similar policy for dealing with misleading material. Instead of having their tweets removed, politicians with over 100,000 followers have disclaimers applied to their tweets. Here’s what that looks in practice:
In case you missed it, above the tweet, in small, low-contrast text, is the disclaimer stating that “…the content shared in this Tweet is disputed”. The problem is that these lies were still retweeted tens of thousands of times, to the same people that eventually went down to Washington D.C.
So what should we do about all of this? While this is a difficult question to answer, it’s not impossible. Yes, there are serious technical challenges involved in keeping a platform with 340 million users free of lies. But even though there are no perfect solutions, I have a few suggestions. Although I’m not sure the CEOs of these companies are going to like them.
For example, at the end of 2018, fifty per cent of the activity on Twitter was retweets of influential figures like celebrities and politicians (up from twenty per cent in 2012). The percentage is likely even higher today. If it’s too difficult to monitor the lies of everybody on the platform, how about focusing on the accounts which are retweeted most often? Say those with over 100,000 followers? Or over a million? This would dramatically reduce the amount of misinformation floating around simply because it wouldn’t be there to be retweeted.
Even if you reduce the number of accounts you’re focusing on, deciding which opinions are okay and which ones are unacceptable is a minefield of bias and accusations of censorship. So how about focusing on content which is demonstrably false and applying a consistent policy across the board? Once lies have been identified, how about removing them before they are shared with millions of people instead of adding a tiny disclaimer? Lies are easier to define than offensive opinions, and it’s difficult to argue that anybody benefits from being exposed to them (although Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, did his best).
Banning powerful people with millions of fans is always going to be controversial. So how about setting up a transparent, concise policy which everybody can read, follow and understand? Something which clearly states the number of violations which will be tolerated before an account is permanently banned. People are much less likely to be outraged by a decision if they can see it coming as a result of the actions of the offender. It’s certainly better than penalising accounts based on unknowable and inconsistently applied criteria.
Most importantly, how about setting up an independent, impartial, publicly accountable group to make these decisions? Building a successful technology company doesn’t qualify its owner to decide who should or shouldn’t be allowed to reach millions of people. In fact, considering the enormous conflict of interest they face, they’re uniquely disqualified from that role.
Twitter and Facebook already have the functionality they need to do most of these things. Adult content is already clearly labelled and hidden by default (…don’t ask me how I know that). Twitter flagged Trump’s false election fraud tweets in just fifteen minutes. They removed retweet functionality almost immediately following the attack on the Capitol. The damage that Trump’s lies have caused isn’t a result of an inability to act, it’s the result of an unwillingness to antagonise one of their most profitable users.
Whenever a high profile individual gets banned from social media, our first instinct is to talk about free speech. I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. Access to platforms of this size isn’t a free speech issue, it’s a responsibility issue.
I understand the reluctance to limit people’s speech. You don’t need to start quoting Niemöller’s “First they came …” or Evelyn Hall’s “I disapprove of what you say…”, to convince me that freedom of speech is an essential value in a functioning society. But we can’t continue to ignore the fact that the power to influence the beliefs of tens of millions of people whilst sitting on the toilet should come with a few caveats.
If there were only fifty social media accounts in the world, and each of them came ready-made with an audience of tens of millions of people, we’d all think seriously about who we allowed to run them. We’d pay careful attention to what they said. We’d remove access immediately if they were irresponsible or dishonest. None of this happens with today’s social media platforms.
It feels like a big move to ban Trump, but that’s only because the lines between freedom of speech and freedom to exert monstrous influence have become blurred. As I pointed out in a recent article, the attack on the Capitol wasn’t the result of a single speech or tweet or Facebook post. It was the accumulation of years of lies, which likely reached billions of people. Anybody with a following in the tens of millions has the power to cause absolute mayhem. And there’s very little being done to keep them in check. If that doesn’t terrify you, consider the fact that Justin Bieber has the second largest Twitter following in the world.