In response to last week’s attempted coup at the Capitol, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have permanently banned Donald Trump, along with others who used the sites to incite and organize the violence.
President Trump is hardly the first candidate or president to utilize social media to advance his campaign and agenda. Back in 2009, I blogged about President Obama as the first “social media president.” In that blog post, I described how unique it was for a president to communicate important news through Twitter and host a town hall on YouTube. However, what sets Mr. Trump apart from his predecessors is how Trump used social media to bully and belittle his opponents and to rally his supporters into a violent frenzy for the past four years.
And, it’s not just Mr. Trump who needs to be held accountable for this behavior and violent rhetoric.
Trump’s own attorney, L. Lin Wood called for the execution of Vice President Pence via a post on Parler as the insurrectionists where inside the Capitol , something I believe is a federal crime. (Parler has since been dropped from the Apple Store, Google store and every other app-hosting platform, leaving its founder to complain that the company won’t survive.)
Mr Trump and his supporters have been crying censorship since being booted off Twitter and Facebook. To be clear, the president sits about forty feet from the White House press room where he is free to speak on any subject he chooses in front of an international press corps. He is also free to call into the television and radio shows he’s called into throughout his presidency. So, to cry censorship because a private company needs to protect itself from liability connected to the violence being celebrated on its platform seems disingenuous at best.
That said, we absolutely must not ignore the power these social media platforms have had in dividing our country and perpetuating the conspiracy theories that have endangered so many lives. It’s long past time for Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and the like to clamp down on disinformation campaigns, hate speech and threats of violence. These sites certainly didn’t create these problems, but they have amplified the lies and emboldened the perpetrators and helped insurrectionists coordinate last week’s attack on our nation’s Capitol.
For example, last Spring, I kept hearing about QAnon. Curious, I Googled it and watched about half of a video spouting the most nonsensical, paranoid tripe I think I’ve ever heard before closing the video window. Now, one would think that would have been the end of it. But, that’s not how these platforms are designed. Having searched for this bizarre conspiracy theory just once, the algorithms across Google search, YouTube and Facebook all continued to serve up more of the same nonsense. I can’t help but be concerned about the impact that would have on someone who is inclined to believe the bizarre claims inherent in the conspiracy theory. Once these algorithms recognize that you like a type of content, they will continue to feed that content to you and never allow anything else to get through. Another word for that is brainwashing.
Anyone who has followed my blog since I first launched it in 2007 knows I have been a highly vocal supporter of social media. I viewed it as a way to connect people together, promote products and services through valuable content and exchange ideas in a new and immediate way. What I didn’t anticipate – and I should have – was that some of that content and some of the ideas exchanged would include hate speech.
Social media platforms should be held accountable when the content shared on their sites and in their apps promotes hate, violence, racism, bigotry or otherwise endangers people’s lives. I’m not an expert in public policy, so I am not exactly sure the way forward here. But, I am glad to see these companies are finally stepping up to address the hate and violence and lies that have been festering and amplifying on their sites for years. I sincerely hope the coming administration will address this issue in a way that ensures private companies can walk the line between hosting and encouraging free speech while also protecting the electorate from disinformation, lies and threats of violence. Let me know what you think in the comments below!