Social Media Oligarchy
Opportunity or threat for Democratic processes?
by Jochen Ressel
When the picture above appeared, some might have thought: It comes four years too late – but better now than never.
The delete button has not even been fully released when a discussion was initialised, including some serious questions: Is it right for a company to decide who is allowed to make tweets or not and which political view is acceptable? Does the suspension of President Trump's Twitter account represent a limitation of freedom of opinion, which is one of the fundamental human rights? Does the suspension of a politician's account with some 88.7 million followers represent an unlawful political interference?
Let us take the reason for Mr Trump's Twitter account deletion into consideration. Just a few days before, on January 6th, 2021, the Congress was requested to confirm the US election result, which saw Mr Biden as the winner and President-Elect. And so, it happened. Mr Trump, absolutely convinced that the correct election result might have looked different if there had not been "irregularities" and the "biggest betrayal in US history", – for which he failed to give any hard evidence so far – called his supporters not to accept the Congress' decision and to fight against it. The result was a riot on January 7th, 2021, where some hundred protesters and Trump fans smashed the Capitol doors and vandalised the famous governmental building in Washington DC. The riot has been commented throughout the world as an "unseen attack on democratic values" and has understandably damaged the US reputation. As a result of the events, Twitter decided to suspend President Trump's account as his tweets "violate the Twitter rules".
Unquestionably Mr Trump's active social media role has changed the political game. While his predecessor Barack Obama used Social media to cultivate his image, Mr Trump actively made politics with his tweets, which generated worldwide attention. Through the changing and ever-increasing importance of Social media, this sector has become a relevant factor of influence in the political decision-making process and only by now, the broader public and officials are forced to decide, how to deal with it.
Basically, there are two big groups with different arguments:
- One of them states: Yes, a media channel will have the right and the responsibility to ban content if it leads to violence and life-endangering conduct. Therefore, the suspension of Trump's account is more than appropriate.
- Others say: No, a company shall never be allowed unilaterally to make decisions that influence politics. This contradicts the fundamental right of freedom of speech and opinion.
Finally, there are official opinions around:
- The German government voiced criticism that Trump's Twitter account has been blocked. Social network operators have a responsibility to ensure that political communication is not poisoned with hatred and incitement to violence, said Government spokesman Steffen Seibert in Berlin on January 11th, 2021 (source: orf.at). However, freedom of expression as a fundamental right of elementary importance can only be restricted by the legislature, not by companies. That is why Chancellor Angela Merkel considers it problematic that the US president's accounts have been permanently closed.
- According to EU Commissioner Thierry Breton, the blocking represents a turning point in regulating online networks. "Just as 9/11 caused a paradigm shift in global security policy, 20 years later we are witnessing a before-and-after in the role of digital platforms in our democracy," the EU commissioner wrote in a guest comment for "Politico".
Some might say: Taking all this into account, it is evident that the legislation failed and is now forced to provide a legal framework, with which Social media platforms can evaluate published contents and therefore need to be provided with a sound legal basis on which to operate. But is it really up to the state to decide which political views are "allowed" or "banned"? Where are the limits of this approach? Let us look at China's standard practice where journalists expressing criticism about the political system "disappear" all of a sudden or are interrogated. One example is the reports of a journalist using the name "serpentza" on YouTube. He explains the situation of government media control on his channel, e.g. in the video "I was interrogated and detained by Chinese Special Police". Or think about the blogger Zhang Zhan who faces five years in jail for her Wuhan reports in the context of the Covid19 situation in China (source: asiannews.it)
Though it is a problematic issue, we all as a media society have to deal with it. Unfortunately, media politics still is not a relevant argument in pre-election campaigns, but this might soon change. I am personally convinced, that events like the Capitol riot or the currently challenging role of the media in the Covid19 crisis will lead to the point, where the general public will ask politicians specifically about their opinions about media control and media politics before giving them their vote in future.
Let us have your thoughts and comments!
We are looking forward to receiving them!
Jochen Ressel is a Board Member of the Austro-British Society and takes responsibility for the ABS’ Social Media channels. He worked several years for a UK company and its HQ in London and has held management positions with responsibility for corporate communications in the last decades and now, as the COO of SoccerCoin. The views expressed in this article are entirely his and reflect in no way the opinions of the ABS.