The social media dilemma
What does one do when as a social media platform owner and operator, your most famous proponent is also your most egregious violator of policy?
That is the thorny issue facing Twitter, and it has now come to a head.
Twitter has specific policies around inciting violence, hate speech and abusive language, and in recent days has had to bring those policies into force against the United States president Donald Trump.
Trump has been censured by Twitter, first for making false claims and secondly for inciting violence.
Trump alleged that mail voting in California would lead to massive fraud, via a Tweet. The president made assertions about how mail voting forms were being distributed that were not true. Hence, his tweets were fact checked.
This is all very choice language for a very real phenomenon – lying.
Fact checking is only necessary when someone lies, misspeaks or makes a false statement.
President Trump has made something of a habit of this.
A Canadian reporter for the Canadian paper The Star, Daniel Dale, has made it his mission to fact check the public utterances of Trump. This has been no small task.
As of a year ago, 5 May 2019, the president had made 5,276 false claims. This is not the odd bad stat, or ropey reference, these are mostly demonstrably false claims.
That day in May of last year is the last update on the fact checking page. One can only assume the task became so onerous and unmanageable at that time that one man could not hope to do it on his own, irrespective of his journalist chops.
And so, back to Twitter.
President Trump uses Twitter to bypass the mainstream media because it has the most infuriating habit of fact checking his utterances. By and large, the mainstream media does not give the president a free pass to make any false claims he pleases. This greatly displeases the president. Thus, he has used Twitter as his personal megaphone to reach his base which tends to lap up his false claims as “the truth” denied them by the so-called mainstream media.
The fact checking tags applied by Twitter has led the president to sign an executive order regarding social media. Entitled “PREVENTING ONLINE CENSORSHIP”, the order likens social media to the town square of old, where citizens would exchange information and engage in debate. The order asserts “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see.
“As President, I have made clear my commitment to free and open debate on the internet. Such debate is just as important online as it is in our universities, our town halls, and our homes. It is essential to sustaining our democracy.”
It seems somewhat incongruous that the fourth estate, the free press, is ignored in supporting that free speech, providing the vital checks and balances that are deemed so important in mature democracies.
Despite this being an executive order aimed at defending free speech, the president cannot resist the temptation to politicise the text, and names his critic Representative Adam Schiff, albeit a Democrat, in a side rant about the investigation into Russian interference and collusion.
Most commentators agree that the order is a long shot at best. It will face massive opposition and may well be unenforceable.
However, the order does raise a very important point.
Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook, has famously said that it should not be the responsibility of the platforms to fact check all information posted. He argued that if a politician lies on the pages of a social media platform, people should be able to see that and make their own judgment.
And while there is an argument to support this, it is very difficult for many people to discern if someone is lying without the facts being presented alongside the lie. And there’s the rub.
If the platforms do not take it upon themselves to provide a fact check for the likes of a president, an elected official or a even a powerful critic of same, how can ordinary people discern who is honest and who is not?
And this extends beyond mere politicos too. The anti-vaccine movement would arguably never have got as far as it did had it not had social media as a platform with which to spread its claims. Ditto for the 5G hysteria, not to mention the conspiracy theories around the likes of PizzaGate and more.
As has been demonstrated by the investigations into the Vote Leave campaign in the UK, social media can be weaponised to influence voters with microtargeting, often using false information – or lies.
The social media platforms argue that they cannot be expected to fact check and that it would be too costly, and yet they are among the most profitable and rapidly growing companies that pay the least tax per dollar earned in the world, ever.
And so we are left with an odd situation.
It was late Thursday 28 May 2020 when president Trump signed the executive order, and we have woken on Friday 29 May to find that president Trump has been further censured on the Twitter platform for glorifying violence.
In response to the Minneapolis riots as a response to the death in custody of an unarmed black man, the president has threatened to overrule the governor of the state, who is not a political sympathiser with Trump, and send in the military, with a chilling reference to looters.
The specific tweet had been removed but not before many had captured it for use. It was then reinstated with the policy violation tag.
It is reproduced here to demonstrate the extent of violation of Twitter’s clearly expressed policies on glorifying violence.
And so here we have it. A president who has been consistently catalogued as making false statements and now a glorifier of violence creating an executive order making social media platforms responsible for the content they host, in response to his censure under those very rules he seeks to enforce.
Nonetheless, there are important questions to be asked here about the responsibility, and the duty, of social media platform providers to fact check and police content, irrespective of the credibility of some of the sources of those calls.
What a world we live in.