Social media purge of Trump, supporters shows big tech's responsibilities

The solution lies in consistency and transparency.

A PHOTO illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of US President Donald Trump on a smartphone at the White House briefing room in Washington last week. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
A PHOTO illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of US President Donald Trump on a smartphone at the White House briefing room in Washington last week.
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS / REUTERS)
Social media platforms are long overdue for a change in their policies, but it seems at every step of the way they are doing too little – or last week, too much. In the aftermath of the siege on Capitol Hill by a variety of unruly Trump supporters, Twitter and Facebook both leaped into action by suspending President Donald Trump’s accounts. In the immediate aftermath, they took it a step further, permanently banning Trump from Twitter, and undertaking a massive purge of other pro-Trump social media accounts.
Over the weekend, numerous public figures and celebrities on the right of the political spectrum saw drops in followers of tens of thousands with seemingly no explanation. The actions taken by Twitter and Facebook alike are facing heated criticism from seemingly every direction.
Previously, Trump had threatened to repeal parts of Section 230, which protects the platforms from legal responsibility for moderating speech on their site, in response to what he deemed politically motivated censorship. Now, Democratic lawmakers are reportedly discussing legal action to hold social media giants accountable for not acting sooner in the lead-up to the riots at Capitol Hill. Prior to Trump supporters storming the Capitol building, Trump had publicly called for protests on the day in question, and has been peddling conspiracy theories about how Democrats “stole the election” since his very clear election defeat in November.
On the flip side, conservatives are furious at the perceived censorship of Big Tech and are demanding a response. Independents are rightly pointing out the hypocrisy and selective enforcement of Twitter and Facebook’s content moderation policies. Even more problematic, the deletion of social media accounts with a seemingly partisan agenda is triggering not only those sympathetic to conservative causes, but also the most extreme Trump supporters, which could make the situation all the more messy.
This tension was only intensified after Google removed the alternative social media platform popular with the alt-right, Parler, from its app store. Apple, too, threatened to do the same should Parler refuse to implement a content moderation policy. Parler prides itself on its free speech policy and does not remove content that would be deemed against community standards on Twitter or Facebook.
In a cursory examination of Parler in the hours following Trump’s Twitter suspension, while the rioters were still storming the Capitol, I saw Trump repeating the same conspiracy theories, and numerous supporters openly calling for “war” against the Biden Administration. Additionally there were calls for Trump supporters to use their Second Amendment rights (the right to bear arms), in a not-so-thinly-veiled threat.
It’s hardly surprising then that we saw violence from some of these individuals in Washington DC. But what is the role of tech companies, and can they do anything without getting attacked from all sides? The solution lies in consistency and transparency.
It is completely reasonable for private companies like Twitter or Facebook to have specific content policies. After all, they are a free service which people willingly choose (or not) to join. But given their disproportionate influence on elections, combined with the fact that we know state actors have intentionally used the fast and free flow of information on social media to spread politically motivated misinformation, there is a legitimate case to be made for government regulation of Big Tech. Such regulation could, if done right, ensure that content policies firstly exist, but secondly are applied equally to all parties, whether they be Jane from Ohio, or the president of the United States.
If these companies are not regulated, we will continue to see unelected technocrats making broad decisions about which information is available to the public with little to no oversight from any government body. While I’m no fan of government regulation, at least this is an action that could be carried out with a semblance of democratic representation backed by the US Constitution, rather than the gods of Silicon Valley telling the rest of humanity what’s good for us.
Until now, social media content policies have been rife with political bias and even when it comes to threats of violence, the networks refuse to act. When Palestinian terrorists used social media to spread clear-cut incitement to violence on their platforms, even using the hashtag #StabbingIntifada in Arabic, Facebook did nothing – even when dozens of Israelis were murdered in direct correlation to online incitement. Similarly, Twitter has faced repeated calls to remove Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, who has called for genocide repeatedly from his account. Ironically, while Khamenei has been active on Twitter in the West, his regime bans Twitter for average citizens in Iran. Iran has also slaughtered Iranian protesters in the streets, executed professional athletes for opposing the regime, all while funding global terrorism and fueling some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts in the world such as in Syria. Yet Twitter only took action for world leaders that “serves the public interest” when Trump acts? The hypocrisy is stark and only serves to deepen divides and foster distrust.
The public needs consistency in enforcement, and transparency on when and why it’s happening. Not the sudden disappearance of tens of thousands of accounts who all happen to espouse a political viewpoint. Big Tech either takes a stand against all incitement to violence, against all racist hate speech, against all antisemitic movements, against all world leaders who incite violence, or none at all. Otherwise, they are only contributing to the problem. There must be governmental oversight for Big Tech before it’s too late.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.