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Trump ban signals tipping point for social media platforms

Twitter’s decision was therefore a response to a continuing civic emergency. I find it hard to see how any responsible player could have behaved differently.

Would McCormack advocate for Twitter to allow the planning of other kinds of terrorism – such as Islamic terrorism? Surely not.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But to defend Twitter’s decision on this occasion is not to say social media companies are blameless.

We should be urgently concerned about their immense power to both amplify and restrict speech. And we should have been tackling these issues years ago.

In the Philippines, to give just one example, hundreds of inauthentic accounts on Facebook, linked to the murderous regime of President Rodrigo Duterte, have for years been used to spread disinformation and threats of violence.

Facebook began to act against this during the 2019 mid-term elections, but as eminent journalist Maria Ressa has put it, the misinformation, like a drug injected into a vein, was already coursing through the political system. Facebook’s action was too little, too late.

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Now it is happening again – but this time in the US – hence gaining world attention.

It is abundantly clear that the digital platforms must drop the pretence that they are not a kind of publisher/broadcaster, and therefore partly responsible for what is carried on their platforms.

If they cannot self-regulate, then they must be regulated, and co-operate with that effort.

Every new media technology has disrupted power and created issues of how we regulate speech. The printing press was part of the religious reformation. The Pope was not a fan when the Bible was translated and published for anyone to read.

For most of the time since, freedom of the press has belonged to those who have a printing press – or a broadcasting licence.

The key innovation of our own times is that for the first time in human history, anyone with an internet connection can publish to the world within minutes of deciding to do so.

This has already changed just about everything in politics and society.

It is at least the historical equivalent of the printing press. There is lots to celebrate, including the ability of people previously excluded from public life to make themselves heard.

But so far, we have not come up with a way of thinking through the issues and implications.

The digital platforms have rejected the idea that they more than technology companies.

The digital platforms have rejected the idea that they more than technology companies.Credit:Getty Images

The digital platforms have rejected the idea that they more than technology companies, and should therefore take on some of the responsibilities that go with freedom to publish.

This denial of responsibility is no longer tenable.

Through the algorithms that govern our feeds, social media companies curate information and decide what we see. They amplify some players and mute others. But how they do so is neither consistent nor transparent.

What should be done?

In Australia, commercial broadcasters are subject to a system of co-regulation, in which codes of conduct are written in consultation with government. Once implemented, the Australian Communications and Media Authority monitors compliance.

In theory a broadcasting licence can be removed for serious breaches. This has never been done, but conditions have been placed on licences, for example after Alan Jones helped foment the 2005 Cronulla riots.

The effectiveness of this system can be debated, but it has broad consent as a reasonable balance between regulation and media freedom.

Had a commercial broadcaster in Australia persisted in carrying the threats of violence that appear on social media, it would certainly have been grounds for removal of licence.

Something like this system of co-regulation might be the way forward.

The suffragettes did not have Twitter when they campaigned to get the vote for women in Britain.

In the meantime, have we forgotten that it is possible to have political speech, and organise political protest, without social media?

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress did not have the worldwide web when they organised an international movement that saw the overturning of apartheid in South Africa. The suffragettes did not have Twitter when they campaigned to get the vote for women in Britain, and Martin Luther King did not collect Facebook likes for the US civil rights movement.

If we want to applaud the Hong Kong demonstrators when they plan protests against the Chinese Communist Party, but condemn the demonstrators on Capitol Hill, we have to be able to articulate what the difference is. If we say it is wrong for the CCP to censor WeChat, but right for Twitter to censor Trump, we must be able to say why.

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally near the White House before the Capitol riots.

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally near the White House before the Capitol riots.Credit:Bloomberg

I think we should put up with a good deal, including grave offence, before we restrict freedom of speech, but draw the line at incitement of violence. Lies and misinformation should be labelled as such.

Those making these decisions should be publicly accountable and implementing rules arrived at through a public process.

Even the prohibition of violent speech leaves us with difficult calls. The suffragettes used violence. So, once he became convinced there was no hope of negotiation, did Nelson Mandela and the ANC. History judges those movements kindly.

Would Twitter have blocked them?

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Such difficult questions are exactly why social media companies must step up and become part of the regulatory discussion, and why governments have to get to grips with it too.

We are at a tipping point in the history of social media, and the result will determine a great deal – including the future health of democracies.

Margaret Simons is Honorary Principal Fellow of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

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