The deplatforming question – cynical ploy or moral play, the outcome is more regulation

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Millions of social media users may have rejoiced last week at Twitter’s decision to deplatform US President Donald Trump once and for all.

But as many have pointed out, our own Privacy Commissioner and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel among them, blocking Trump from tweeting to his 88 million followers and millions more on Facebook, which also disabled his account, may be populist, but is also deeply problematic.

The move is only likely to accelerate efforts to regulate social media platforms, taking control over sensitive editorial decisions out of the hands of the corporations and into some sort of regulatory agency or at least an independently appointed arbitrator – the equivalent of our Broadcasting Standards Authority.

A year ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey would have bristled at the prospect of losing some control of the content that features on their platforms. But faced with increasingly vexing editorial calls, Zuckerberg, in particular, told Congressional hearings last year that he welcomed stricter regulation, to combat the perception that the platform is inherently biased in its editorial decision making.

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Trump goes dark on Twitter – against his will.

Arbitrary and cynical

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards, in a tweet, described Twitter’s move to permanently block Trump as “arbitrary and cynical”.

“We should not be abdicating responsibility for the tough policy decisions required, and delegating responsibility for our community standards to conflicted corporates,” he wrote.

The infiltration of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. by Trump-supporting activists last week, preceded by Trump’s inflammatory speech, which was carried on social media channels, put the Big Tech platforms in unchartered territory.

While Google, Facebook and Twitter had all previously flagged or blocked his tweets for containing disinformation, this was deemed a much more serious incident – allegedly glorifying violence and potentially inciting the Capitol riots that resulted in the deaths of five people.

Twitter and Facebook shares have both dipped significantly this week as the market anticipates swift regulatory action to bring social media platforms into line. Reducing those platforms autonomy to make editorial decision making could impact on the popularity of them and increase the compliance costs of policing new rules that may be imposed by the Biden administration and Democrat-controlled Congress.

Everyone acknowledges we need a new playbook of rules to deal with the increasingly polarised world of social media. The debate now begins in earnest over what regulatory structure will preserve the best of social media platforms while more effectively curtailing the dark elements.

trump ban

Who gets to decide?

As New York Times writer Shira Ovide puts it, “there has been lots of screaming about what these companies did, but I want us all to recognize that there are few easy choices here,” she wrote.

“Because at the root of these disputes are big and thorny questions: Is more speech better? And who gets to decide?”

Freedom of speech-loving Americans and their elected representatives will need to consider those questions carefully. The rest of the world will look in in fascination because the decisions that are made to regulate a tiny handful of powerful Big Tech platforms will have implications for all of us.

The Parler game

Equally as fraught is the decision by Amazon, Google and Apple to deny an online platform to alternative social media app Parler, which has become a bastion of far-right discussion and the go-to destination for Trump supporters looking to carry on the discussion away from Twitter.

We have seen cloud companies withdraw hosting on controversial operators before. The anonymous message board 4chan was dropped like a hot potato by hosting companies as the content it hosted became increasingly scandalous and illicit. Just as Twitter has the right to kick people off its platform who it deems to have violated its terms of use, Amazon can do the same to companies whose apps and websites it hosts on its servers. Apple and Google have the right to decide which apps they allow into their app stores, a position that has seen competitors level claims of anti-competitive behaviour against them.

In this instance, the companies offer a reasonable justification that Parler could be used to incite further rioting and violence. They are leaning heavily on their corporate responsibility mandate. But cutting Parler adrift is also good for the bottom line. While freedom of speech advocates and Trump supporters may howl in outrage at Big Tech’s blocking moves, the companies are playing a smart strategic game.

With a new political administration in charge, coming to the table to discuss new regulation, and possible changes to the ‘Section 230’ internet legislation that currently exempts them from liability for content they carry on their platforms, from a position of having acted against a rogue political foe is obviously beneficial.

Biden may not be in bed with Silicon Valley, but this flurry of action by Big Tech is designed to lessen the strength of the regulatory wave that is coming when the new president and Democratic lawmakers embark on bringing the change to the online landscape they have been promising.

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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