Twitter World's Most Powerful Editor Now? Donald Trump's Ban Raises Many Questions
Trump was banned from Twitter following the Capitol Hill violence in the US | Image credit: Reuters
Norway's national newspaper Aftenposten had once accused the Mark Zuckerberg-owned Facebook of being the world's most powerful editor. The comments had been made in an open letter written by the newspaper's editor in an edition of the paper itself after the social media platform censored an iconic photo from the Vietnam War. The image of the 'Napalm girl' - as the subject of the Nick Ut photograph eventually came to be known - is one of the most powerful and evocative pieces of documentation of the Vietnam War and is even said to have hastened the end of the brutal war.
With the micro-blogging site Twitter permanently banning Donald Trump from tweeting or accessing his millions of followers on the platform, it seems now Twitter, not Facebook, is the most powerful editor in the world. After all, the Jack Dorsey-owned Twitter - essentially a tech company that operates a social media platform, just silenced the President of the United States, arguably one of the most powerful office-holders in the world, despite Trump's current outgoing status.
While critics of Trump, as well as those with any grain of common sense, would agree with Twitter's decision to snatch Trump's favourite toy from the trigger-happy fingertips of the Republican industrialist and reality television star, the incident has once again highlighted the role played by tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google and even other giants like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft when it comes to shaping - even influencing - political narratives.
While defenders of social media and free speech have hailed Twitter's move as a step in the protection of free speech, the truth might be more complicated. Today it was Trump, who is to say that tomorrow it won't be you?
In the past few years, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have repeatedly come under attack from ultra-right forces in the US who have accused it of discrimination. Trump's ban, though much needed, highlights once again the immense power of social media to control public opinion and news. With the ban, Twitter may have emerged as the saviour of liberal values and free speech. It would, however, be foolish to argue that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are avenues of neutrality. Far from it.
Trump and his supporters have for years used social media as an alternate form of media, sidestepping traditional legacy media which MAGA supporters led by Trump decried as run by "liberal globalists" trying to destroy American values of democracy. It may thus be true that social media is a tool for anyone and everyone to express and share views that traditional media might not allow them the space to share. But the final word in this case - as in the case of traditional legacy media - lies with ownership.
A social media platform is just as neutral as its owners' personal and editorial policies and in most cases, their own socio-political leanings. To dress social media up as a neutral forebearer of the underdog or a universal fact-checker of news is not just foolish but also dangerous.
If Twitter, a company headquartered in American soil, can ban a rogue billionaire President from accessing its platform, the question arises, who can be next? What about defenders of human rights or dissidents of the government who are not supported by the owners of the big tech companies?
Can an unelected, privately-owned group of high-earning tech companies with multifarious vested interests - be trusted to be gatekeepers of free speech and political impartiality? Despite high levels of public engagement and the power to start and shape conversations, these companies themselves remain largely unaccountable to the law simply due to lack of appropriate legislation and understanding on part of lawmakers to tackle the growing scope of the technological services they provide and its impact on the socio-political life of a country. Think about the role that data collected by Facebook and eventually supplied to Cambridge Analytica played in influencing the 2016 Presidential elections in the first place in which Trump was declared a winner. Or the role of Twitter in the so-called 'Twitter Revolution' in 2009 when Western media highly projected the use of Twitter by revolutionaries in Iran in calling for pro-Western liberalisation and policies in Iran. The truth is the legacy and social media often work hand-in-hand to shape public opinion and news.
The role of social media in orchestrating uprisings and attempted coups across the world is undeniable. Take the instance of the 2019 attempted coup by Juan Guaido's Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Footage circulated on social as well as news media showed popular support for Guaido, who had the support of Trump. But the truth was far from the optics. In 2018, Facebook itself took responsibility for unwittingly allowing its platform to be used to foment violence that eventually led to genocide in Myanmar.
Today, it feels good to laud Twitter and its contemporaries for doing the right thing and shutting up tyrants from spreading hate to millions of impressionable users. But only till the tables are turned. Because on social media, neutrality can be a double-edged sword.
In a world where tech companies like Facebook are constantly analzying all user data - from the messages we send to our friends and families, to the amount of time we spend on a particular website or even a meme - it becomes important to always approach social media with a pinch of salt and a pair of microscopic glasses to carefully read the fine print. And it becomes doubly important to not confuse social media platforms or proprietors of internet services as defenders of human rights instead of profit-hungry tech companies whose principles and ethics may or may not represent those of the masses.
While lauding Twitter's move to finally call out a megalomaniac from inciting mobs to violence is commendable, it is perhaps time to start taking a deeper look at who really controls freedom of speech in the world today - constitutions, governments, media or big tech giants.