Neil Mackay: The best way Trump was censored is fallacious
Like most people, I felt instantly relieved when Big Tech Donald Trump pulled the plug in the middle of the Capitol uprising. Silencing him would save lives, I felt democracy would save.
However, when that temporary relief wore off, it became clear that the way Mr Trump was silenced was supposed to worry us. We leave it to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to rule on freedom of expression issues. Big tech in the form of Twitter and Facebook is causing political chaos in the world. We can’t make a mistake about that – the blame must be placed right on the door of these companies. It was Big Tech who gave Mr. Trump the weapon he and those like him used in Scotland, Britain and the rest of the western world to divide us and spread hatred.
Now are we leaving Big Tech to oversee the chaos it created? We all know what happens when the fox is running the chicken coop. With America on the verge of violence with the inauguration of Joe Biden, there is never a better time to recalibrate our dysfunctional relationship with social media.
At the heart of the problem is this: We have allowed social media to exist outside of democracy – when, like every arm of the media, it is central to the functioning of democracy. However, we can reform social media and reintroduce it under the umbrella of democracy. We can even turn social media into a positive force – something that strengthens democracy instead of weakening it. There is still time, although the time window is closing. The answer is simply an old-fashioned rule.
We have to think of social media as we think of other industries, such as the food industry. We don’t allow the food industry to poison our bodies. Why should social media companies poison our minds?
Big tech needs to be brought up to speed, and we will not do this through self-regulation, such as when Facebook and Twitter unilaterally decide to censor Mr Trump. Only strong independent regulation can act in the public interest.
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First, send regulators to big tech companies. We send inspectors to farms, slaughterhouses, supermarkets and restaurants. Do the same with digital companies. Regulators must be independent from the government and have the power to investigate and review how big tech is working. Are you using technology to deliberately sow unrest? Do their algorithms (as we know them) put lies, hatred and misinformation in the foreground? If so, tame the algorithm and align the firms.
Regulators also need the ability to find out exactly what Big Tech is doing with our data. What information do they collect and how and to whom do they sell it and what do they do with it? Any behavior that is contrary to the public interest will be considered illegal and will be fined. License companies and use license removal to ensure good behavior. If a restaurant poisons me, it will eventually close.
The second level of regulation would force Big Tech to completely reorganize. Instead of allowing Mark Zuckerberg to decide if and when and who to be censored, the legal framework would require Big Tech to, for example, remove posts that incite violence. Failure to do so would mean fines. When posts spread lies or misinformation, companies are required by law to include disclaimers and fact-checked statements. Defamatory posts would have to be removed. Companies would be required by law to weed out fraudulent contributions such as states or political parties disguising themselves as normal users.
While social media must also be governed by real world laws, we cannot, for example, simply treat Facebook or Twitter as we treat the BBC in regulatory terms. Social media pages are user generated, the content comes from members of the public, not from trained journalists. However, this does not release these users from the full force of the laws of the real world. Incitement and defamation can and should be punished in civil and criminal courts, and social media companies should be subject to a government obligation not only to remove or add disclaimers and factual clarifications to offensive bodies, but also to criminal bodies to the police and to the Redirecting police to alert anyone who appears to be defamed on their platform.
Regulation is therefore twofold: independent regulation by the state and self-regulation required by law.
Next, we have to break up the big tech companies. They are the railroad and coal barons of the 21st century. Such a concentration of power – especially in the area of the mass media – is absolutely contrary to the interests of functioning democracies and fair competition in the market. Democracies and monopolies are incompatible.
The important thing is that none of this will happen if we don’t force our politicians to act. Politicians must be instructed – by us, the voters – to pass laws to regulate. The biggest beneficiary of the chaos social media has created over the past decade has been the political class. It is politicians who have stoked the chaos on social media for their own benefit: for proof, look at the yes and no camps in Scotland, the Leavers and Remainers of Brexit, and of course the political divide on both sides the divide in America is being widened. The division politicians promoted on social media clearly distract us from important issues, such as eating in the child’s bump, and support and promote their own, often hostile agendas.
If there had been a reasonable system of regulation in place, Donald Trump would never have reached the extremes that he had. It would have been checked and double-checked so often that the regulation of social media would have restricted it – and that is exactly the core of this debate: checks and balances in a healthy democracy. For example, if someone like Mr Trump continued to exacerbate violence under an adequate system of regulation, the suspension of social media would feel compatible with democracy and free speech.
Today, however, Mark Zuckerberg decides what free speech means. The internet is a public space – like a street. Private companies don’t monitor our streets. In a democracy, people agree to the type of policing we want – and instruct politicians to act accordingly. It’s time we did just that with social media.
Read more: Post Trump – Can We Ever Reclaim the Internet from Extremists?
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