The maxim “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” often misattributed to Voltaire, sums up one of democracy’s pillars devised back in classical Greece and adapted by modern nation-states. Subsequently, the new era of instantaneous and digital global exchange flourishes under clear yet minimal controls on freedom of expression. However, as speech fora grow and expand, Silicon Valley executives inconsistently regulate online civil discourse, with mixed results. Federal legislation regarding digital expression is dated or inexistent. Simultaneously, social media executives have failed to fill the regulatory gap by applying disparate standards between countries and sociopolitical contexts.
Against the backdrop of American democracy, former President Donald Trump’s social media account suspension during the last weeks of his administration unleashed necessary debate surrounding freedom of expression. Threats of imminent harm and active calls for violence are reprehensible offenses and justified Trump’s suspension from Twitter following the violent events in the nation’s capital on January 6.
The Spread of Global Hate
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, reflecting on the ban, wrote: “We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all. … I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.”
The failure by tech giants to lift the suspension after Trump was out of office is a dangerous act of censorship. After January 20, the former occupant of the White House became a regular citizen. Even if the law protects the prerogative of private platforms to expel users, censuring a political leader in a robust civil society operating within a democratic framework is a treacherous political step by an unelected tech establishment.
Correcting the Narrative
The regulation of free speech on social media in the United States needs to be reexamined, both through a domestic legislative lens and a foreign policy prism. Too often, malign actors exploit the instruments of democracy that facilitate free speech to weaken political opponents. For example, far before Trump’s content was censored, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who tweets in five languages from five different accounts, should have been taken off the platform for incitement to violence and suppressing freedom of speech.
Similarly, social media access for illiberal regime spokespersons, from Havana to Hong Kong, should be revoked for deliberately crushing our opening maxim and silencing their citizens. The regulation of online expression cannot be inconsistent, allowing those who stifle the voices of others from a position of power to then turn around and propagate their opinions unchallenged under the mantle of free expression.
At times inconsistent and often criticized Western tech executives’ efforts toward global standards include correcting the narrative, de-platforming and reducing public presence. For instance, Apple’s user agreement restricts violent speech in the company’s App Store, forcing illiberal voices to seek an outlet elsewhere. Similarly, Amazon decided to remove Parler from its server, effectively de-platforming the right-wing “alt-tech” network after backlash concerning anti-democratic rhetoric.
Twitter’s progressive approach of correcting the narrative temporarily blocked the ability of users to retweet or share tweets containing highly controversial or unverified information, put fact-check labels on tweets and temporarily suspended the accounts of problematic political figures until after major democratic events, such as elections.
Coming back to our initial example, there is a clear distinction between Trump’s Twitter offenses and Khamenei’s authoritarian excesses. Leaders and representatives from regimes depriving their citizens of free expression and access to social networks should, by mere reciprocity, be deprived or censored from access to such democratic privileges. Social media platforms are the product of the West’s unique and fragile sociopolitical order, which guarantees free expression and debate.
Many tech executives throughout North America and Western Europe take their political context and rights for granted instead of feeling compelled to act consistently in defense of the civic privileges and republican principles that made possible companies and ventures in the first place. The abuse of social media by authoritarian regimes should motivate tech giants to censure those that stifle, within their own online borders, the longings for individuality, expression, entrepreneurship and innovation that are so central to technological genius.
Social media campaigns by authoritarian, ill-intentioned global actors also create a burden of volume. The amount of misinformation and targeted online campaigns promoting revisionist histories present a substantial cybersecurity challenge on a global scale. For example, the European Union’s Medicine Regulatory Group reported in January 2021 that online hackers tampered with Pfizer’s COVID-19 data to undermine public confidence in the vaccine. This demonstrates that even assets meant to benefit the world in its entirety are subject to misinformation campaigns. As misinformation spreads on social media platforms, it can take weeks for it to even be noticed, not to mention being removed.
As of today, there is no clear uniform or definitive movement advocating for enhanced responsibility for tech giants to be more vigilant when it comes to content from major social media figures on their platforms. Nor is there specific standardized legislation to define who would enforce speech regulation, what standards of speech conduct are set, the consequences for deviating from the standard or how to enforce the general endorsement of and adherence to such regulations. Although the double standard of free speech across social media is apparent, the sheer challenge of creating solutions seems insurmountable.
21st-century IT sectors can be divided into two categories. The first, including advanced algorithms for data analysis and artificial intelligence platforms, should be subject to restrictions equivalent to armament and strategic manufacturing, such as International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) in the US. The second includes most social networks, which clearly do not fall under the same category as fighter jets or computer vision algorithms. However, they are still a key part of the West’s modern arsenal in the tacit cold war and, therefore, have a duty to their civilization camp.
Tech giants have a responsibility to actively assume their role in checking strategic and ideological adversaries who use their platforms for self-amplification and sowing discord. For instance, if the Iranian or North Korean regimes don’t allow government critics or exiled political opponents to address an audience via social media, why should these regimes enjoy the benefits of being part of a worldwide platform?
If anything, the dissident voices too often silenced by authoritarian governments ought to have social network access. Liberal, democratic and participative governments have the simultaneous responsibility of crafting broad oversight policies on online civil discourse and freedom of expression.
A government whose citizens can freely and openly voice their opinions should enjoy the benefits of social media access, just as such benefits should be withheld from regimes who repressively de-platform their citizens. The notion of freedom of expression on social media cannot be a shield masking calls to violence, nor can it be an instrument of regimes waging asymmetric battles against republican and democratic principles as part of their revisionist crusades.
Oversight measures advanced by social media executives are understandable and laudable. But these must be better formulated, codified and enforced to counter violent and oppressive practices that go beyond the editorial rules of specific publications. Existing inconsistent regulative efforts do not even reach the full extent of the offending population. Western democratic leaders must take a unified stance on developing standardized regulations that carry sufficient consequences for noncompliance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.