Should social media companies censor the content they carry? On what basis should they do so and are they doing it fairly? These questions, which have been rumbling for years, gained a sudden urgency last week when Twitter moved to permanently suspend US President Donald Trump from its site.
The platform initially suspended Mr Trump’s account as a result of tweets encouraging his supporters to march on the Capitol in Washington – an event that became a riot. Twitter deemed the President's tweets defending his supporters – though not their specific actions – a breach of its ban on glorifying violence. It made the suspension permanent when, the following day, Mr Trump declared that the “75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me… will not be disrespected or treated unfairly.” This, Twitter claimed, was tantamount to a refusal to concede he lost the election, despite his undertaking to accept the result.
Twitter’s action came after former US first lady Michelle Obama urged social media companies to permanently ban Mr Trump so he could not longer use them as a platform to “fuel insurrection”. But some senior Republicans have accused Twitter of acting despotically. Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley condemned Mr Trump for inciting the attack on Congress, but insisted that “silencing people, not to mention the President of the US, is what happens in China, not our country.”
Twitter fails to act consistently in enforcing its guidelines. The ban on promoting violence, for instance, does not appear to apply to other major global figures who use its platform in provocative ways. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for example, describes Israel as “a malignant cancerous tumour that has to be removed and eradicated”, but retains Twitter accounts in several languages.
Twitter did respond to criticism of its actions towards Mr Trump by taking down a tweet from the Ayatollah on January 10, though not on the grounds of promotion of violence. Mr Khamenei had tweeted two days earlier to claim that Covid-19 vaccines made in the UK or France were “completely untrustworthy” and designed to “contaminate other nations”. This was deemed to violate Twitter’s ban on “false or misleading information" about Covid-19 vaccinations. But the two-day delay in taking down the tweet suggests it would not have done so had it not been for the accusations of double standards. And this is not the first time Twitter has proved slow in applying its policies to other global figures, while assiduously targeting the account of Mr Trump.
In March last year, Chinese government spokesman Zhao Lijian took to Twitter to claim that the Covid-19 virus had originated not in China but the US, and had been brought to Wuhan by the American military. Twitter declined to add any warnings to the tweet to advise its readers that such claims were without evidence until two months later. And it only acted after The New York Times drew attention to the Twitter's inconsistency in regularly attaching fact-checking warnings to Mr Trump's tweets, but not to those from the other governments.
While Twitter’s inconsistencies are the focus of attention in the US, a worrying case in Britain last week of censorship of by social media companies has drawn rather less attention. Again, it centres on the issue of Covid-19.
The video sharing platform YouTube, worth $15 billion to its owner Google, last week temporarily stopped carrying the output of the UK radio station talkRADIO. It acted on the grounds that some of the station's presenters and guests had contradicted "expert consensus" from British and international health experts over the policy regarding lockdown and the wearing of facemasks to control the spread of Covid-19. This, YouTube claimed, was tantamount to spreading disinformation, though it later rescinded the move and reinstated the station.
It took a government minister to come to the defence of talkRADIO, pointing out that its commentators and interviewees were free to criticise and question government policy in a democracy. To equate this, as YouTube appears to do, with spreading disinformation is tantamount to an attack on press freedom.
And this is not the first time YouTube has acted in such a high-handed way. Last May, it took down the video of an interview with Professor Karol Sikora, a leading British oncologist and former director of the WHO Cancer Programme, who has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of the lockdown policy, which he fears is causing a huge increase in cancer deaths. Again, YouTube reinstated the video, claiming its removal had been an error.
It is possible to feel some sympathy for social media platforms, who are under pressure to remove deliberate disinformation and conspiracy theories – like those that blame Covid-19 on 5G telecommunications masts – just as they are to remove content that promotes violence or terrorism. But these powerful tech giants often display a worrying inconsistency when it comes to enforcing their own guidelines and use their considerable power to close down legitimate debate. Perhaps a solution is for governments to use the law not only to protect the use of personal data but also to ensure that social media companies do not abuse their powers and undermine basic freedoms.
David Powell is a media analyst and former journalist with a range of pan-Arab broadcast media, including BBC Arabic