Message from Keith
Like many people who had grown tired of Donald Trump’s daily firehouse of lies and disinformation, I cheered last month when Twitter finally announced it was permanently banning the then-president from its platform.
For me, the move was long overdue—coming two days after he incited a violent mob to rampage at the U.S. Congress, and less than two weeks before the blessed end of his tumultuous term. But better late than never.
But then friends, media colleagues and some smart students caused me to have a rethink.
Was banning Trump from Twitter a violation of his right to free speech under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Is it hypocritical for me to applaud Twitter banning Trump while at the same time condemning Myanmar’s generals or China’s Communist Party leaders for blocking critical social media sites or taking down critical posts? And how can the North Korean news service, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei be allowed to spout their propaganda on Twitter while the former American president has been dumped?
And perhaps the most vexing question of all is; are we giving too much power to Big Tech companies to decide what speech is allowed and what should be proscribed? Some say, understandably, that they are deeply uncomfortable with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter boss Jack Dorsey being the ultimate arbiters of acceptable speech.
These are not easy questions, I admit. But here’s where I come down.
First, Trump still has multiple platforms available to spew his nonsense. He can call a press conference tomorrow, and will likely draw hundreds if not thousands of journalists who will report his every word. He can give an interview to his favourite TV network or newspaper. He has an email list of millions of his fans and he can communicate with them directly. So the idea that Trump’s free speech has been restricted is laughable.
To me, this is not primarily a free speech issue because America’s first amendment prohibits government from passing any law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”. These social media platforms are private companies, and any private company is free to set its own standards for user behaviour and the kind of content that can be shared or disallowed.
You have no more free speech “right” to a Twitter account or a Facebook page than I have to write my own column in The New York Times or have my own talk show on CNN. Or to view it another way, if I want to start my own digital magazine or social media platform that refuses to run any articles or comments by climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers or QAnon conspiracy theorists, that should be my right to decide.
The check on these Big Tech firms abusing their power rests with the market. If they go too far in proscribing certain types of speech, people—meaning the users and consumers—will go elsewhere. It’s the way the free marketplace of ideas should work.
I don’t object to certain types of online speech being regulated and in extreme cases banned. It is done all the time, and in different cultural contexts. Pornography is routinely blocked. In Germany and France, support for Nazism and Holocaust denial is largely proscribed. In Thailand, online speech insulting the monarchy can bring harsh prison sentences.
To me, the more important question is who is doing the regulating, and why? I generally distrust governments making decisions on what type of speech is allowable, particularly unelected, unaccountable and autocratic governments whose agenda is more about silencing critics than regulating dangerous or extreme views. As much as I distrust Big Tech with these decisions, I trust governments less.
Ultimately, I believe, it is up to all of us, as users, to become more news literate with online material, and learn to become more skeptical and discerning consumers. Fake news, rumour and disinformation thrive when people are gullible. Just because something appears online does not make it true or credible. And because someone forwards you something sensational on WhatsApp or Facebook or Signal does not mean you should forward it on to your social network without verifying the accuracy.
It’s why we teach news literacy here at HKU Journalism. It’s a core skill that everyone needs, at every age. Without it, fake news, rumour and disinformation will continue to spread unchecked. If we don’t start policing our own online behaviour, expect governments to step in and do it for us. And not all governments have the public interest in mind. Government regulating speech is what I fear most and what we should all guard against.
Happy Year of the Ox, everyone. Let’s hope this new year brings better tidings—and a vaccine to end this pandemic and get us on the road back to something resembling normalcy.