Trump has changed a lot in the last four years, unfortunately mostly not for the better. There will be a lot to talk about, but today I want to limit this article on how we communicate online. This article is a commentary about freedom of speech, how we treat each other online and the power that a handful of tech companies hold.
It's done! Trump is no longer the President of the United States, Democrat Joe Biden takes over as the President of the United States today. But Donald Trump leaves a lot behind. That's why handing over office to Biden is not like waking up from a long nightmare because the effects of the Trump administration will continue to linger for a very long time.
While the Biden administration will make numerous attempts in the early days to roll back several Trump policies, including important ones like rejoining the Paris climate change agreement, that, unfortunately, won't change the fact that Trump's shadow will continue to hover around the world even if we can't or don't have to come across Donald Trump on social media anymore.
We could talk about several topics now and view Trump's political legacy from many angles, but you don't have that much time and neither do I to take a look at all the things that the worst US president of all times has done.
On top of that, I don't trust myself to be able to contribute anything meaningful on every topic, so I'll focus on a few areas that we've talked about here on NextPit as well. So let's talk about the power of giant social media companies like Facebook Twitter, potential new players like Parler, and Freedom of Speech itself.
The Tormented States of America
The average American thinks of his country as the 'best country in the world' with a constitution that grants them the freedom to do anything they want. Even the national anthem of the US reflects this ethos and terms it "the land of the free and the home of the brave." While the rest of the world has been a little critical of the average American's superiority complex for a while now, what is the actual state of the so-called "land of opportunity"?
First of all, we have to agree that Trump is not the cause of division in that country. Rather, he is a product of a development that has been going on for a long time. German journalist Klaus Brinkbäumer, former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, recently said that people in the United States were no longer even able to agree on a single reality, and to my mind, his analysis was spot-on.
There are recent polls where over 70 per cent of Republican supporters still think Joe Biden stole the election. Over 70 million people voted for Trump and a large portion of them are unwilling to actually acknowledge Joe Biden as president.
How many realities are there?
We must undoubtedly acknowledge the fact that people failing to agree on a single reality isn't a problem exclusive to the United States anymore. While it was under Trump's aegis that the notion of "alternative facts" was created, the actual phenomenon was already in place long before Trump even became President. What we can all agree upon is that this phenomenon received a significant boost under his presidency.
When you look at the good old conspiracy theorists who talk about how man has never been to the moon, the earth is flat, and Elvis Presley is alive, there's always something endearingly oddball about them, isn't there? You're amazed they actually think that, but they don't hurt you.
We have left the point of harmlessness, however, in times when QAnon followers believe in a Deep State, in a great reset, and in a saviour Trump who alone is capable of averting the inevitable. In Germany, where I live, there are people who are convinced that this global conspiracy exists and recent terrorist attacks in this country prove that the perpetrators live in different realities than the rest of us.
Freedom of speech vs perceived freedom of speech.
Other realities – there is an online version of this on social media platfrom Parler. While the service itself offered nothing new in terms of features and is basically a Twitter alternative. However, it differs from Twitter in one key aspect. There is no moderation at all and people are free to talk about whatever they want. For the people who use it, this is a prerequisite if they want to talk "freely".
So now we're getting to the heart of the problem. Because people weren't on Parler because they think they are bad people and need to hide somewhere with their bad thoughts. They are much more of the opinion that people are simply not allowed to say what they want to say on Twitter and Facebook and in general anymore.
People are protesting on the streets and on the net, insisting that their fundamental rights are being restricted too much, that they are in a dictatorship of opinion and have long since been banned from saying what they want to say.
On the one hand, this explains the popularity of unmoderated platforms like Parler or Telegram, but on the other hand, it also shows the dilemma of established services like Twitter. When should moderation take place, how much moderation is allowed, what is limited by freedom of speech and what is not?
Where Twitter normally intervenes, Parler, on the other hand, allows you to throw out anything you want without hesitation. Whether anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, contrarians or whatever: everyone could let off steam to their heart's content, thus creating parallel societies in which the counter-speech is completely absent, which at least exists on Twitter and Facebook.
So, for all the criticism of the two platforms, a service with weaknesses in moderation is still preferable to a completely unmoderated alternative in my opinion. The only question now is how Twitter will ensure that moderation is more meaningful in the future.
Twitter and Facebook share the blame
In the past, there have always been people who believed in strange things or who made politically questionable statements. But these statements were heard in the evening in the pub over a beer, in family circles or perhaps, in the canteen among colleagues. Under normal circumstances, these individuals are quickly isolated or simply termed a nutjob with an extremist view.
Today, however, there is no idea crazy enough for which you can't find a bunch of people sharing the same thoughts. Unfortunately, there is a vast number of platforms on the Internet where people with unpalatable views can reinforce each other in their actions and thoughts. It doesn't matter whether one actively joins forces with others, or whether one is just a silent reader and then radicalises oneself on one's own.
But we don't have to go that far and look into all these abysses. Because it doesn't become dangerous only on 8chan and when a confused person shoots people. It already becomes dangerous when questionable statements are allowed to be made on Facebook and Twitter, which reach millions of people from there and, in the worst case, influence them. On Facebook platforms alone (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp), over 2.7 billion people hang out – more than a third of the world's population.
Facebook failed to take a clear position early on and ensure that certain boundaries were not crossed. Facebook's community rules supposedly provide the framework of what is allowed, but all of us have seen what should have been innocuous posts deleted and their users temporarily banned, while at the same time racist and sexist insults were tolerated, as were threats of crime, Holocaust trivialization, and similar smut.
Mark Zuckerberg as a young student who was simply happy that a few thousand people were using his network, may not have been thinking at the time about what rules should be played by on the platform. He was thinking more about how to grow the platform faster and how to keep the competition at bay.
What Facebook needs
But we haven't just been talking about Mark Zuckerberg needing to get his shop in order for the last two or three years. Remember back in 2018 when he had to appear before the US Congress and declare, among other things, that this fake news and hate speech thing was going to be dealt with using artificial intelligence alone?
Apparently, that hasn't quite worked out so far. One may wonder if Facebook is technically incapable of dealing with the spread of falsehoods and hate speech – or if they're not really interested at all! At the end of 2019, Facebook stood at about 45,000 employees, according to Statista, and in the third quarter of the 2020 pandemic year alone, Facebook made about $7.85 billion in profit – surely no one can tell me that this company sitting on a mountain of cash wouldn't be able to just bump up its workforce to 100,000 people and adopt better moderation policies
This also explains why Trump's lies were waved through for so long. After all, they don't want to piss off their many millions of followers. It was only very late, in the autumn of the Trump presidency, that Facebook took a harder line and reprimanded the 45th POTUS, or even completely removed him from circulation. We have yet to talk about that point in time, but before we do, let's take a look at Twitter.
Is Twitter more powerful than the most powerful man in the world?
Twitter has to be blamed for letting this – like Facebook – go on for far too long. It wasn't until months ago that they started tagging their tweets with warnings and further information, it wasn't until after the events on Capitol Hill that they initially suspended Donald Trump's account for 12 hours before finally deleting it.
Much like Facebook, we have to count Twitter out for simply tolerating Trump for far too long. The president single-handedly made sure the service was always in the news every day of his four-year term. So you have to blame Twitter for being quite happy to look the other way when he posted something that they wouldn't have let any other person get away with. So if Twitter lets everything go for four years and now finally blocks Trump for comparatively harmless tweets, then Twitter can no longer justify this solely with the freedom of speech of its users.
And worse, Twitter has set a precedent by its actions, which were prompted more by events at the Capitol than by the latest Trump tweets: It's an unintentional blueprint to be measured against in the future, and it also raises questions about Twitter's power.
What power is a platform like Twitter or a person like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey allowed to have, anyway? If the U.S. president is generally always referred to as the most powerful man in the world – then isn't the man or company that silences that president even more powerful in a way?
Excitingly, Jack Dorsey himself has spoken out on this issue and been similarly critical of it. In a thread on Twitter, he makes the following comments:
I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?— jack (@jack) January 14, 2021
Interview with Dennis Horn, journalist and digital expert of the ARD:
I was also able to talk to Dennis Horn about this. He is a journalist and digital expert for the German public broadcaster ARD, blogs for WDR on Digitalistan and also runs the recommendable tech podcast COSMO Tech for WDR together with Jörg Schieb. He was able to answer some of my most pressing questions on the topic.
Was it right for Twitter to take down Trump's account?
Dennis Horn: "It was right for Twitter to take down Trump's account. From the platform's perspective, it was because Trump has been violating its terms of service for years. And from a social standpoint, it was the right thing to do because we're already seeing the consequences. The barrage of disinformation on Twitter has subsided, and where there are no more tweets from Trump, they can't be amplified by media outlets that have reported on every single one of those tweets."
And was it also right to do it (only) at this point?
Dennis Horn: "Better late than never. But the question hits a point. Because it's not just the critical moments when platform consistency matters. It's the years before that when things start brewing - and during those years, platforms often didn't even acknowledge their own responsibility."
Is it okay that Twitter was able to decide on its own?
Dennis Horn: "No. Such an approach enables arbitrariness, and it also ensures that a part of society doesn't accept such a decision."
The next question ties directly into that: If Twitter can take out Trump - the most powerful man in the world - media-wise - isn't Twitter CEO Jack more powerful than the most powerful man in the world?
Dennis Horn: "Yes and no. Donald Trump continues to have the traditional avenues of communication open to him. He can give press conferences, the White House has a website, there are channels that he can use and that are noticed by millions. At the same time, of course, it is true that here - somewhat pointedly - a single rich dude from Silicon Valley decides on a debate space that has become highly relevant for our societies. That's a power that shouldn't be in the hands of individuals, but should be democratically legitimized."
Do you think governments should have a say or decision-making power in such elementary decisions as Trump's Twitter ban, and do you think we should take some of their power away from platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
Dennis Horn: "I think it's appropriate to take away some of their power at this point. But I don't think governments should have a say. Governments should create a framework for regulating platforms, where rules for content moderation can be set both remotely from companies and remotely from the state. For example, one proposal in the debate is to establish a platform council composed of various social groups to take on this role."
Which is better for society and free speech: a platform that is not moderated like Parler - or a platform like Twitter that is moderated moderately too poorly?
Dennis Horn: "Any bit of moderation is better than no moderation at all. I think that's already a lesson of the past few years."
We offer our thanks to Dennis for answering NextPit's questions in such detail.
Only a matter of time
Yes, it was only a matter of time before Trump was shown to the doors – on social media at least. My point in asking about the timing is something else: Did Twitter miss the right time and when they should have acted?
We talked about this: for years now, and even before his presidency, Trump has been known for a harsh tone and for a certain resistance to facts. A harsh tone just happens to prevail on Twitter, you have to put up with it to a certain extent. But when political opponents are insulted and like-minded people are incited, and when political sentiment is created with untruths, a service like Twitter has to intervene – no matter how big or small the account.
I can understand if Twitter doesn't keep tabs on every person with 100 followers 24/7 and check their tweets for truthfulness. However, this must be the case with heads of state and other similarly opinionated personalities, and recently Twitter has proven time and again that it is possible to take action against this.
However, this must also be consistent and also apply, for example, to politicians from Iran who publicly stir up the mood with fantasies of violence of a completely different kind and whom Twitter has so far not stepped on their toes.
Better late than never, as Dennis rightly said in the interview section. But nonetheless, we have to blame Twitter for allowing this dangerous cocktail of right-wing extremists and radicals, racists, die-hards and conspiracy ideologies to form around Trump. Trump has been able to drag many moderate Republicans into this quagmire with him and actually create an alternative world for these many millions of people that come across as amazingly fact-free.
Twitter allowed him to warn against and discredit absentee voting over and over again. He was allowed to sweepingly refer to Democrats as "radical leftists," talk about witch hunts against himself, cast doubt on the intelligence agencies, brand the election as stolen, and more.
All of this was said over and over, spread by other multipliers, and repeated further until it just became ingrained in millions of minds as a given. I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have seen the storming of the Capitol if Twitter had acted sooner.
Trump would never have called within a press conference to go to the Capitol now, even though he also said many bad things on TV and in White House press conferences. In hindsight, a lot of people are going to have to ask themselves why they didn't act on that, why the media allowed that to happen, and why their own party couldn't catch him there.
But we're focusing here now on Twitter and, of course, Facebook, and we all would have been helped if these platforms had stopped Trump's lies well in advance. By the way, it wasn't just these two social networks that cut off Trump's juice:
A little digression: Trump - Persona Non-Grata on the Net
🚧 Deutsche Bank beendet Geschäfte mit Donald #Trump— KATAPULT Magazin (@Katapultmagazin) January 12, 2021
🚧 Shopify löscht Trumps Onlineshops
🚧 Twitter deaktiviert Trumps Konto
🚧️ Tiktok löscht Hashtags, die von Trump-Anhängern genutzt werden pic.twitter.com/QeQFb2Df4D
So let's take a look at what kind of wave Twitter's actions caused on the net.
Even before the complete account freeze, there was a twelve-hour timeout for Trump on Twitter. That was surpassed by the 24 hours that Facebook imposed almost simultaneously. At Facebook, however, they then decided in the meantime that they'd rather keep the POTUS off for at least a week – that is, at least until the 46th president, Joe Biden, was inaugurated.
The newly formed AWU, Google's newly formed union, also demanded that Trump be banned from YouTube, which, after a few days' delay, they did. And more companies followed, helping to ensure that the still-president's voice was gradually silenced digitally.
Further, many companies from Airbnb to Shopify to PayPal have spoken out and are actively taking action against both Trump and the aggressive parts of his supporters, for example, Shopify blocked Trump's online store as well as that of his political campaign just a day after the events at the Capitol.
Snapchat also blocked Trump's account, TikTok banned various hashtags from Trump supporters, and Amazon, Apple, and Google have collectively turned the lights off on Parler, at least for now.
Less dramatic, more amusing, however, is the call for Trump to be removed from the movie "Kevin - Home Alone 2" and digitally replaced by 40-year-old Kevin actor Macauley Culkin – who promptly expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
petition to digitally replace trump in ‘home alone 2’ with 40-year-old macaulay culkin— rae ⚔️ (@rachellobaugh) January 10, 2021
A lance for Twitter and Facebook
I've now extensively criticized and counted out Twitter and Facebook for their many transgressions over the past few years, but I feel like I now have to take up a lance for them as well.
There is no one interpretation of freedom of speech, which makes it difficult for global companies like those mentioned above to get it right in each case. Especially in the USA, where freedom of opinion and speech is above all else. This leads to a lot of things being allowed to pass that we in Europe find difficult to comprehend.
In Germany, for example, we consider freedom of speech to be a very high value as well, which is why it is prominently anchored in the Basic Law. There, however, we also find offences of honour such as insult, slander and defamation, as well as incitement of the people.
Basically, we can say anything here – as long as we don't violate other rights within the framework of freedom of speech. So if you are of the opinion that "THEY can't all come to Germany because we can't take them all in", that is your opinion and capped by freedom of speech.
According to the law, the limit of what can be said is exceeded, if you:
"Incite hatred against a national, racial, religious or ethnic group, against parts of the population or against an individual because of his membership to an aforementioned group or part of the population"
So, if you want, feel free to rant from morning till night about how you don't like foreigners and don't think it's great when some are accepted into Germany – that's all allowed within the bounds of freedom of speech. But if you make this statement in combination with an insult based on religion, ethnicity, etc., you can rightfully be slapped on the wrist for it.
That's why Twitter and Facebook are in a hopeless mess and dilemma: What's acceptable in the USA doesn't necessarily have to be in Germany. Even if one wants to mercilessly crackdown, the laws often differ from country to country.
So how do we all collectively solve this problem now?
The fact that you have read a very long text on this unwieldy topic till almost the end makes me hopeful. This is because while it is the responsibility of tech companies to use clever algorithms and manpower to solve this problem, an equal amount of responsibility also lies with each and everyone of us.
We can only pull the cart out of the mud if everyone pulls together. Politicians urgently need to create a framework that set clear guidelines for tech companies to follow. The companies, in turn, must do everything in their power to punish misconduct at an early stage and not only when the child has already fallen into the well. It is imperative that corporations be regulated and, if in doubt, be answerable to the law.
Finally, it is up to all of us to behave on the platforms as we would if we were sitting together at the same table. Listen, understand, hear arguments, refrain from insults. In addition, we all need to get some level of media literacy on it and make sure we support those who can't do it on their own. We need to be able to agree on a reality that applies to everyone. An election is not a stolen election if that's what one person claims and all the facts are against it – we need to reach that consensus.
Then – and only then – can we correct this disaster that's been wrought upon social media. Frankly, it's a balancing act that I'm having a hard time imagining rulers, courts, corporations and users being able to pull off right now, but then, don't these dark times call for a little hope?