Voices from the Arab Press: When the platform rises up against its owner

A weekly selection of the opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world

US President Donald Trump speaks next to first lady Melania Trump as he departs from the Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, US, January 20, 2021. (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump speaks next to first lady Melania Trump as he departs from the Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, US, January 20, 2021.
(photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 14
The storming of the US Congress is not any different from what occurred in Arab capitals during the Arab Spring, when demonstrators attacked state institutions in a manner similar to what we saw in Washington.
Back then, president Barack Obama supported the protesters and claimed that the demand to overthrow the regime was a legitimate one. It appears as if America didn’t learn its lesson until it was too late – when anarchy reached its own shores.
It is quickly becoming clear that, much like during the Arab Spring, the events in Washington, DC, were shaped in large part by online discourse that took place on social media. Online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and the like have played a critical role in the spread of misinformation. And despite their monumental impact on the American political discourse, US law provides them exemption from any legal responsibility or liability for the content they host.
Despite his severe actions, the decision to suspend Donald Trump’s accounts was an undemocratic move that contradicts freedom of expression. Many policy-makers, including in Western circles, expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that any restriction on freedom of expression must be decided upon by legislators, not private companies. The French media seemed equally uneasy with the move, and described Twitter’s censorship as an “immoral” act.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with Trump’s policies, everyone can agree that the outgoing US president made very effective use of social media to communicate with the public. Trump was the first president to engage in direct dialogue with his constituents. Granted, his messages often contained partial truths, heated emotions, and private beliefs without any consideration of real-life facts. But unlike Obama, who wrote only 10% or so of his tweets himself, Trump was able to speak to the people directly, in his own tone. If it were not for Twitter, Trump likely would have never become the 45th president of the US.
The decision to close his account is therefore extremely symbolic. The very thing that enabled Trump’s rise to power is also the first to mark his political demise. 
– Badr bin Saud
Al-Ittihad, UAE, January 14
Over the course of the past few weeks, the US State Department designated the Houthi militias as a terrorist organization, adding the group to a notorious list that also includes al-Qaida, Nusra Front, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Abu Nidal Organization, the Abu Sayyaf group and others.
In the European Union and Great Britain, some of these organizations also have been designated as terrorist entities, while others have not yet made it on the list due to a different definition of “terrorism” by European states.
That these Western states cannot even agree on which entities should be included on the terrorism watch list is concerning.
The common factor among all the names mentioned above is that they are armed groups that have chosen violence as a way to impose their political and social will and to extend their influence.
In a new world dominated by new rules – where social media provide a platform for anyone to reach a widespread audience and where non-state actors enjoy more power than ever before – it is more appropriate than ever before to consider adopting a universal definition for terrorism.
This agreement should be binding and simple, and include any group or faction that uses arms to promote its goals under the definition. All armed organizations, without exception, had historically disastrous and tragic experiences – including those that acted under the banner of “patriotism.” They all played with fire and ended up igniting their respective regions.
Consider a few examples. The First Intifada of 1987 was a popular uprising of oppressed people who were subjected to a harsh military occupation. The images of the Palestinian kid throwing stones at Israeli tanks managed to generate empathy and support for the Palestinian cause all over the world. Yet this peaceful revolution turned increasingly violent and led to the ultimate emergence of the movement we know today as Hamas. It contributed to the circulation of weapons that led to murder and terrorism – not only against the Israelis, but also against the Palestinians themselves.
Another example is Somalia. Many of us remember the late Siad Barre, who was president of the Somali Democratic Republic from 1969 to 1991. Barre was a dictator who ruled his country with cruelty and tyranny. The uprising against Barre, carried out by armed groups led by warlord Muhammad Farrah Aidid, managed to remove the president from power. However, it soon sent the country into chaos, leading to local guerrilla wars that tore the country down.
In Cambodia, in Vietnam, and in every other place where armed organizations carried weapons, one will notice a slippery slope that begins with picking up arms and taking political action.
Therefore, it would be wise for global powers to sit around a table and agree on a common definition for “terrorism,” which would allow them to place the same organizations on their respective terrorism watch lists. Only then can decisive action be taken against these criminals. 
– Malik al-Athamna
Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, January 15
The situation in the US is really dangerous.
First, because president Donald Trump deviated from protocol and called on his voters, many members of the Republican Party, and the American public to reject the election result. He claimed that the elections were rigged, incited and inflamed his supporters, and set a shocking precedent that never occurred at any other point in US history.
Second, the situation is dangerous because social media platforms have banned the US president, in a precedent that is also against the concept of democracy and freedom of opinion and expression, thus preventing Trump from communicating with the world through the only way he knows well.
Even those who sided with Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey in his criticism of the president remarked that the decision to ban Trump’s account constitutes a “failure” and sets a “dangerous precedent,” especially given the immense power enjoyed by the major Internet companies.
In a series of tweets explaining Twitter’s decision to block Trump’s account indefinitely, Dorsey claimed that this measure was taken due to “a failure on our part to promote a healthy conversation.”
YouTube also announced that it was pursuing a similar path, removing videos of Trump and banning him from posting new clips for a week. According to a statement issued by the popular video platform, the new content, which was uploaded to the Donald Trump channel, has been removed for violating the site’s policies. Further, YouTube indefinitely suspended comments on Trump’s page, citing “safety concerns.”
These recent actions raise the perennial question about the double standards of these social media platforms, which can ban individual users at their sole discretion, while others who post equally vitriolic (or worse) rhetoric are being overlooked. Indeed, this should be alarming to all proponents of democracy and free speech.
We may very well be heading toward a future in which private companies like Twitter define our freedom of expression based on their own interpretation of the law, their agenda and their own worldview. 
– Abdul Latif al-Manawi
Asharq al-Awsat, London, January 16
For many decades, life in the US revolved around a relaxed orbit ruled by clear laws, major media and major information sources, notable universities, and even churches and temples. The American ecosystem was broad and gave plenty of room for individuals and groups to follow their own choices.
There were very small communist and socialist parties, and although they were banned during the Cold War, they continued to operate. Indeed, the communists had a headquarters near Wall Street, the beating capitalist heart of the US. Similarly, even though Nazi Germany killed 400,000 American soldiers in World War II, the US had a Nazi Party, which was allowed to advocate and promote hatred against Jews and blacks.
These marginal parties were always free to voice their opinions, but they never really reached large crowds. However, with the advancement of information technology, they quickly found a stage online. In the past two years there have been dozens of meetings in Congress looking at how to control the situation, the most famous of which is summoning the leaders of major information technology companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to examine the supposed interference of Russian actors in the 2016 US elections.
In the past few weeks, things took a dramatic and dangerous downturn, with social media platforms deciding to prevent outgoing president Donald Trump from posting online. In the coming months, we will witness legal and political calls to impose further restrictions on social media platforms.
Today, America is facing two information wars: one external and the other internal. The external war can be addressed by limiting the ability of foreign actors to interfere in US politics. The internal war, however, is the real dangerous one, as the events in the Capitol have proven.
US authorities have proven that they have the ability to silence those they consider opponents of the state. Even the president himself, despite his tremendous powers, found himself barred from addressing the American people.
If the hostile rhetoric against state institutions – the presidency, Congress and other political entities – continues to unfold online and succeeds in galvanizing the masses, then the US will face a real danger. The US is a large country of some 328 million people, who represent a diverse mixture of races, religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. Without centralized control, adherence to the rule of law, and respect to its democratic institutions, chaos in the US will be inevitable. 
– Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.