25th Feb 2021


Big tech: From Trump's best friend to censorship machine?

  • Trump tweeted more than 34,000 times since the beginning of his candidacy in 2015 (Photo: Marco Verch)

US president Donald Trump left the White House quietly on Wednesday (20 January), after being banned from almost all social media platforms over the violent riots at the Capitol earlier this month - a move that has come under intense public scrutiny in Europe.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has called for a crackdown on "the untrammelled and uncontrolled political power of the internet giants," offering the new US administration led by Joe Biden to create "a digital economy rulebook" that is valid worldwide.

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In her speech, von der Leyen said that images from the Capitol riots should be treated as a "sobering warning" and blamed social media platforms for fuelling the spread of violence.

"That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy," she warned on Wednesday.

Trump's voice has been silenced on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitch, Spotify and others due to allegedly breaking platforms' rules.

But after years of using social media to spread false information, amplify white supremacist and QAnon believers, and continuously question democratic institutions, Trump's social media ban appears to shift attention from where the responsibility lies.

"The real problem is not that private social media companies have the right to enforce its terms of service, [but] that they enforce them inconsistently and without any transparency or right to redress for most users," said Jan Penfrat from Brussels-NGO European Digital Rights.

The ad placement and recommendation systems of dominant social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which decide what users get to see or not, "gives social media the power to influence and even manipulate public opinion on a scale not seen before," he warned.

However, according to Penfrat, the worst part is that "they sell that power off to whoever pays by allowing third parties to target selected users with almost any message," becoming important tools of manipulation for vested interests.

'The symptom'

While one might think that the outgoing president is the cause of the increasing polarisation and fragmentation in American society, many experts argue that Trump is actually the consequence, not the origin, of broader political changes related to digitalisation.

"The problems with social media platforms are real. Trump is mainly a symptom. Once he is gone, the underlying causes of division, mistrust, and frustration will not go away," the commissioner for values and transparency Věra Jourová told EUobserver.

Trump has used social media as the main way to get his message out, for both his candidacy and his presidential term.

"I doubt I would be here if it weren't for social media," he told Fox Business, a US broadcaster, in 2017.

During his whole presidential term, he often published controversial posts and false statements on his Twitter account, which has been practically unregulated in the name of "public interest".

In total, he tweeted more than 34,000 times since the beginning of his candidacy in 2015 - including a long list of verbal attacks towards journalists, politicians, and other public actors recently documented by the New York Times.

Too late?

Despite many calls on social media platforms to take action against Trump, Twitter only started last year to flag up the president's tweets which were spreading misinformation about the coronavirus or alleged electoral fraud.

Following the Capitol riots earlier this month, Twitter decided to suspend permanently his account due to "the risk of further incitement of violence" - with other social media following shortly after.

For Eliška Pírková from NGO Access Now, "it is imperative to keep in mind that to ban Trump from platforms was not a decision by any regulator or public institution ... but an opaque process of select dominant global platforms with the power to shape free-speech norms globally."

"If anything, the US events underline the need for a systemic and structural regulatory response that is human rights-centric and empowers users instead of rushed decisions made by actors that are driven by profit," she added.

The EU Commission proposed in December new transparency and accountability requirements for tech companies concerning content moderation, advertising, or automated decision-making processes.

The package of proposals now has to be discussed by member states and MEPs, both of whom are expected to face intense lobbying during the next years, before the new rules come into force.

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