Its been radio silence from @realDonaldTrump‘s Twitter account for a while.
The former U.S. president was permanently pink-slipped by the tech giant on Jan. 8, to prevent him from inciting further violence, following the riots in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6.
Shortly after, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and more than a dozen other platforms followed suit in kicking the politician to the curb.
For some, including Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the move was the right thing to do. But others argue it was too little too late because, you know, the United States Capitol had already been invaded and all.
“I think he got away with a lot because of his position, because he was the president,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor at the School of Religion at Queen’s University, and an expert in radicalization and terrorism. “It was a kind of protected account in many ways, regardless of the hate speech he put out there, regardless of the misinformation he put out there.”
While the debate continues on whether a permanent ban was necessary (as opposed to a temporary one), one thing is for certain: this sudden move by Big Tech has unleashed a tornado of questions about what censorship means for our rights to express ourselves in Canada.
So much so that David Fraser, a privacy lawyer at McInnes Cooper, says the term “freedom of expression” is being inaccurately thrown around.
“I think need to be very careful with how they use terminology like ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of expression’… because that has a particular legal meaning,” Fraser said.
“ means that the government cannot restrict what it is that individuals say, subject only to certain limitations … so we do have laws related to hate speech and laws related to defamation.”
The key word here is “government.”
So tech giants like Twitter — a private corporation that is very separate from the government — can legally censor whomever they wish.
“Anybody who creates an online community has the right to create rules for that community. They have the right to determine who is allowed on that community, and who is not — as long as its not discriminatory, for example, related to race, religion, things like that,” said Fraser.
Fraser also notes that when you’re silenced on a specific platform, you’re still free to go somewhere else to express yourself.
You can download the next public engagement app or belt out your thoughts at the town square, all while remaining uninterrupted by the government, which means your freedom of expression is still intact.
But even if social media censorship doesn’t infringe on our free expression, it has definitely awakened many to the power that private corporations hold over public conversations.
“There’s a monopoly on that conversation,” said Richard Lachman, associate professor at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University. “So if you are Google or Apple, you can control everything that happens on our mobile devices. That’s not great. ”
Lachman says the terms of service laid down by these platforms seem to apply to some users, and not to others, specifically world leaders.
That inconsistency leaves room for online abusers to run amuck and spread violence without getting censored, which leads the rest of the online community to believe that the platforms are picking and choosing who gets to stay.
Cue a common argument on why the platforms should no longer be allowed to set the rules for themselves.
“The problem with letting the industry regulate itself is that we know full-well over the last several years, that has not worked very well,” said Fuyuki Kurasawa, York University research chair and director of the Global Digital Citizenship Lab.
“Social media corporations are very good at convincing us that they have very rigorous procedures and rules when it comes to determining who is able to be on the platform. But the reality is that they don’t. They are making up the rules as they go along, for the most part,” said Kurasawa.
“There’s too much power in the hands of a few platforms that allow this kind of misinformation to grow and spread too quickly … and so those companies need to be broken up,” said Lachman.
Broken up through government regulation.
Advocates for this say it would lay down clear, consistent guidelines for all social media platforms on what exactly can and can’t be said, and what consequences would be instore for violators.
It’s not a new plea, but it is one that University of Waterloo associate professor in Communication Arts Shana MacDonald says isn’t happening fast enough.
“We know that misinformation spreads six to seven times more than facts,” said MacDonald. “So I really do encourage and hope to see — with the kind of damage we’ve seen go on — that that relationship between governments and tech giants is taken more seriously.”
Some say government regulation would mean we’re one step closer to a George Orwellian society. But Lachman, Amarasingam, and MacDonald all say regulation would protect users from the rampant harms of social media, such as cyberbullying and doxing. It would also show that public figures cannot get away with spreading baseless claims online. And it would also decrease misinformation — since a Cornell University study found that the biggest driver of COVID-19 misinformation during the first half of 2020 was — you guessed it — Donald Trump.
“We have medical regulations. We have regulations about vaccinations and whether your kids can go to school. We accept a lot of limitations in society, for the good of society,” said Lachman. “It is past time for governments to decide this is important. This is not new media anymore.”
“Radio is regulated, TV is regulated, but somehow social media gets to function completely untouched,” said Amarasingam.
“That is probably going to start to change.”
Still, Amarasingam and Lachman say some platforms have made an effort to take accountability.
We saw it in 2019, when Mark Zuckerberg penned an opinion piece in the Washington Post. We saw it in 2015, during Twitter’s fight against ISIS. And we saw it on Jan. 13, when Jack Dorsey admitted Twitter’s policies and enforcement have been inconsistent.
But Kurasawa, MacDonald and Lachman say moving towards safer online communities is going to cost platforms a lot more than just admitting failure.
The real price would be loss of revenue, which they say is a big factor in why these platforms are still shying away from government regulation, despite publicly calling for it.
“ are in the business — not so much of protecting free speech or banning people — but they are in the business of data collection, data analysis, and selling that data. In other words, they need user engagement,” said Kurasawa.
“Unfortunately the things that create the most user engagement are forms of content that generate strong emotions, often controversies.”
“We know that things that make us angry — things that create tense conversations online — are the things that draw us into social media and keep us there, and so they are the things that make money,” said MacDonald.
Could the events from Jan. 6 speed up conversations between tech giants and government?
Lachman and Amarasingam say perhaps … but the bottom line is that the Capitol siege has shown the world that we cannot afford to wait for regulation any longer.
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