‘The obligation of Twitter to limit the right to freedom of expression’

by Ole Christiansen

During the 2020 election, Twitter was often in the news. After weeks of posting tweets that were factually wrong and thoroughly debunked theories, Donald Trump was banned from the platform. The official statement from Twitter reads:

“After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” (Twitter Inc., 2021).

The suspension of Donald Trump’s twitter account, has caused some discussion. Is this a violation of freedom of expression? Can Twitter, as a private company, freely decide who they want on their platform? 

One of the main factors of Donald Trump’s suspension was inciting violence. What this refers to, is the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. Supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC. This was during a pro-Trump rally, supported and encourage by Donald Trump (The Visual Journalism Team, 2021). This has been used in defence of Twitter’s actions. Experts state that “free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others” (Gelber, 2021). Therefore they claim that Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump by suspending his account. “There is no free speech argument in existence that suggests an incitement of lawlessness and violence is protected speech.” (Gelber, 2021). These experts also claim that there is no free speech right to appear on a particular platform. If this right existed, it would mean that any citizen could demand to have their opinions expressed on the front page of any newspaper (Gelber, 2021). 

However some people don’t see it this way. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the suspension “problematic” adding that “the right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance”  (Browne, 2021). Additionally some experts have raised concerns with the precedent that this sets: “You don’t have to like Donald Trump to find this terrifying. You can be appalled by his campaign of lies against the result of a free and fair election. And you can be horrified by the storming of the Capitol carried out in his name. But you should be alarmed by the precedent this sets. If the tech monopolies can deny a platform to the leader of the free world, then they can deny a voice to anyone.” (Myers, 2021). The Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny said that the suspension of Trump will be exploited by enemies of free speech (Myers, 2021). This has led many to believe that the suspension of Donald Trump is only the beginning, for Big Tech: “When the mega-corporations of Silicon Valley pick and choose which voices can be heard, they are no longer neutral platforms. Rather, they are exercising an extraordinary power over our democracy. Their decisions are opaque and unaccountable, and yet are extraordinarily consequential.” (Myers, 2021). 

No matter what, Trump losing his favourite online megaphone, has raised questions about free speech and social media’s role in regulating online communications (Hanna, 2021). Philosopher and economist J.S. Mill famously defended free speech. He included a limitation of free speech that is directly relevant to this scenario in his philosophical treatise “On Liberty” (Ives, 2021). He notes that action cannot be as free as speech. He provides an example of a speech in front of an angry mob that could incite violence and that such speech should not count as free speech but as action, and when harmful should be regulated (Mill, 1859). The question is, should it be up to private corporations like Twitter to regulate this, or should it be the government? Corporations like Twitter can both benefit and be harmed by Trump’s incessant communication and are therefore hardly neutral in making this decision (Ives, 2021). Perhaps it is time to re-examine free speech in the context of the internet and social media (Ives, 2021).

Bibliography

Browne, R., 2021. Germany’s Merkel hits out at Twitter over ‘problematic’ Trump ban. [Online]
Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/11/germanys-merkel-hits-out-at-twitter-over-problematic-trump-ban.html

Gelber, K., 2021. No, Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others. [Online]
Available at: https://theconversation.com/no-twitter-is-not-censoring-donald-trump-free-speech-is-not-guaranteed-if-it-harms-others-153092

Hanna, M., 2021. Does Twitter’s ban violate Trump’s free-speech rights? Likely not, but it raises questions about social media platforms, Philly experts say.. [Online]
Available at: https://www.inquirer.com/news/twitter-bans-trump-free-speech-first-amendment-20210109.html

Ignatidou, S., 2020. Trump vs Twitter: A Battle Over Free Speech?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/2020/06/trump-vs-twitter-battle-over-free-speech

Ives, P., 2021. Why ‘free speech’ needs a new definition in the age of the internet and Trump tweets. [Online]
Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-free-speech-needs-a-new-definition-in-the-age-of-the-internet-and-trump-tweets-152919

Leetaru, K., 2018. Is Twitter Really Censoring Free Speech?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2018/01/12/is-twitter-really-censoring-free-speech/?sh=1d97a50065f5

Mill, J. S., 1859. On Liberty. London: s.n.

Myers, F., 2021. Like him or not, this censorship of Donald Trump has set a terrifying precedent. [Online]
Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/01/11/like-not-censorship-donald-trump-has-set-terrifying-precedent/

Noor, P., 2021. Should we celebrate Trump’s Twitter ban? Five free speech experts weigh in. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/17/trump-twitter-ban-five-free-speech-experts-weigh-in

The Visual Journalism Team, 2021. Capitol riots: A visual guide to the storming of Congress. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55575260Twitter Inc., 2021. Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump. [Online]
Available at: https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html

Published by Impala Global

Our goal is to ensure that the global health and human rights implications of technology are considered to ensure an inclusive future.

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