On May 26, 2020, Twitter, for the first time, fact-checked and added a label questioning the accuracy of a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump's tweets alleged that mail-in ballots could be "substantially fraudulent" and claimed that the State of California would send mail-in ballots to everyone living in the state. The fact is that only registered voters and not anyone, like Mr. Trump claimed, would receive ballots.
Twitter and other social media platforms have had to face the ire of Republicans and conservatives for not allowing "expression of their opinion" freely after their comments were censored for being abusive, offensive, or potentially dangerous.
In the past, Mr. Trump has had several run-ins with social media platforms, including Twitter, and his administration even launched a website to let social media users share their information if their accounts were blocked. Media personalities with a large following from the conservative audience had echoed the president's point of view.
However, this is the first time Twitter, or for that matter, any social media platform, has censored or labelled a comment by the president. Social media platforms have rarely interfered in comments or information posted by heads of state or those holding constitutional offices.
THE STATE RETALIATES
Twitter's action was countered by POTUS with an executive order which aims to curtail legal safeguards that platforms like Twitter and Facebook enjoy in the U.S. The order states that “When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise dangerous power” and further adds that “they cease to function as passive bulletin boards”.
Interestingly, while Twitter has taken Mr. Trump head-on and categorically stated that it labelled his tweets as they could "confuse" voters, Facebook, the other major social media platform, has refused to take sides or act on controversial posts from the president.
Facebook has been courting both conservative and Republican support to ward off any legislation that could curb its operations and seems to prefer being a "passive notice board", at least when it comes to the U.S. president.
MOMENT OF TRUTH FOR SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS
The moot question though is: Are social media platforms to be passive notice boards where users can post what they want or are should they be active censors of information with liability and responsibility for what is being posted?
All social media platforms started on a non-serious foundation for social interactions, but over the years they have grown to have an enormous influence on public opinion, information and in many cases adopt individual, social and political identities.
The power they have come to gain in proselytizing voter behaviour, racial, communal, and political polarisation is enormous, and in several cases, dangerous. This demands that there is responsible monitoring and action against content that could be offensive or abusive to individuals, institutions, societies, and nations.
While censoring or monitoring of socially sensitive comments by general users is now the norm, the question arises whether it should be extended to every user, even a head of a state or one who occupies a constitutional office?
WHO WILL BELL THE CAT?
News organisations are entrusted to play the role of fact-checker in the case of political or administrative offices, but these offices have circumvented these watchdogs by directly reaching their audience through social media platforms.
This has led to a situation where there is no fact-checking before the information is posted. Political polarisation has increased in the world and this has led to the manipulation of facts and misinformation to suit political campaigns.
Damage that misinformation can cause is at times irreversible, and it is a concern irrespective of any ideology. If platforms such as Twitter or Facebook remain passive notice boards, they could potentially fuel enormous strife, social divisions, and conflict.
But if they don the role of the watchdog, then there needs to be an ombudsman to decide if the censors themselves are not fueling an agenda of their own by muzzling a particular opinion or issue.
It is a categorical balance that needs to be achieved and one that is carefully drafted by all stakeholders. At the end of the day, social media platforms are also corporations that work on a profit motive.
Restrictions on freedom of speech are defined by laws of respective nation-states and are vastly different from one another. For instance, in India, Article 19(a) and (b) impose “reasonable restrictions” on freedom of speech and the curbs are far greater than in the U.S. where the First amendment – and several verdicts from the U.S. Supreme court - take freedom of speech closer to being an absolute right.
Social media platforms, like every other media organisation, must operate under the laws of different nation-states and hence cannot have a common yardstick. But, the entire process now would hinge on ensuring that freedom of speech and their power to moderate a debate is balanced in an objective and transparent manner.
The battle between POTUS and Twitter could set the ground rules for social media engagement by powerful, political polarisers. Twitter is well within its right to monitor and fact-check content that is posted on its platform, but needs to make its system of monitoring transparent and objective. It will also punctuate the requirement for a credible external ombudsman to ratify such actions by social media platforms.
It will also cement their evolution – that of all social media platforms - into a mainstream, serious media platform which must be broadly governed by the ethics and practices of journalism. Those that do not gain credibility and trust of their users may lose out on their following.
In the short term, Twitter may have to face the ire of the conservatives, and perhaps the ruling Republicans, but in the long term, its credibility will be bolstered if it consistently cracks down on misinformation and factually incorrect assertions by any and all users.
This battle is also likely to intensify as the U.S. presidential elections draw near and could reflect the deep turmoil the world's most powerful nation finds itself in. Ultimately, it’s likely to lead to the creation of strong ground rules for social media platforms.
Author: Veera Raghav, Consulting Editor, Synergia Foundation