Freedom of expression: zooming in on the social media ban of Donald Trump

As the Biden administration has been in office for a little over a couple of months now, the international community’s attention is focused on President Biden’s first executive orders. Yet, the ‘theatrical’ 2020 US presidential elections which culminated in a ‘sore defeat’ for former President Donald Trump must not be dismissively forgotten. As the case goes with topical and alarming news, they too have been quickly replaced by the next and so on, remaining contradictorily ephemeral.

Newspaper with picture of Donald Trump. Piece picturing his mouth torn out to show he was silenced by social media bans
Image by Charles Deluvio

Nevertheless, awareness must be raised once again on Donald Trump’s ban from giant social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Although, many have claimed that such a measure was justified and proportionate following his incitement of violence which encouraged the Capitol riots, others cautioned the risks this sanction could pose to fundamental freedoms.


The aim of this article is to raise a debate on whether the right to freedom of expression must be respected at all times and at all costs, while zooming in on the arguments in favour of and against former President Trump’s ban from social media.


Contextual overview


Donald Trump has been using social media platforms to communicate with the public and his supporters for years. According to leading newspapers like ‘The Guardian’, he was particularly active online - across several platforms - where he purported hundreds of threateningly manipulative, factually false and misleading messages.[1] This behaviour ultimately led to his definitive ban from numerous social media platforms, after he received multiple warnings about specific problematic posts he shared over the years.[2]


The catalyst factor, which led to such a ban, corresponds to the events that occurred on the 6th of January 2021, when thousands of pro-Trump supporters assembled to march on the Capitol, Washington D.C., to ‘Save America’.[3] The violent riot that followed was fuelled by Donald Trump’s multiple allegations that the elections were rigged and remarks in his speech such as ‘if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore’.[4] He also ‘tweeted’ similar content which was taken down by Twitter for inciting violence and spreading fake news concerning the elections’ legitimacy.[5] The outcome of the Capitol’s riot not only resulted in the death of five people and to the injury of over a hundred individuals,[6] but also in an undermining of the US democratic political processes.


Motives justifying social media bans


Social media platforms were initially founded as means of communication to strengthen the users’ relationships with each other, even if dispersed all around the globe.[7] However, reality caught up quickly, and certain individuals exploited the potential of such platforms in their mission to promote political propagandas. One could possibly argue that the creators of social media might not have predicted the use of their platforms as the means through which such acts would have been facilitated. As discussed above, former President Trump played a role in inciting the Capitol’s riots through his misuse of social media, notably on Twitter. Therefore, one could argue that banning him from main social media platforms after years of misuse appears to be a proportionate measure.


Another example which could illustrate the harmful potential social media have in conveying messages inciting violence is the instance of Myanmar. In Myanmar, Facebook was used by individuals as a platform to target the ethnic minority of the Muslim Rohingya population to promote violence against them.[8] This resulted in grave consequences in terms of human right violations as well as under international criminal law: an ethnic genocide coupled with forced migration. Whereas this is an extreme case in comparison to Donald Trump’s ‘play’ within the Capitol riot, both display the dangerous extent the misuse of social media platforms can take.


Similarly, social media have been used by many users as forums to diffuse fake news, which unsurprisingly spread much faster than factually genuine information. These practices are not only morally problematic but also dangerous, as they may create conspiracy theories through the loss of diversified information and opinions which many people fall bait for, and were manipulated to believe in. False information circulating on the internet concerning the COVID-19 virus and its vaccine are particularly relevant contemporary examples which, no doubt, stress the issue and its dire consequences.


Within this spectrum, one might argue that such ‘exclusion actions’ by the social media might have come about a little too late, as their internal regulation intended to prevent such misuses and any such escalating consequences in the first place. Although it is important to know now that misinformation on the internet has been noticed and addressed by social media giants, it is also necessary to consider the impact that this might have towards the right to freedom of expression online.


The risk in restricting the right to freedom of expression


Freedom of expression is a core human right, which is widely protected by international, regional and national legislation. Human rights laws bind governments to not restrict the freedoms of individuals within their territory. Conversely, in several authoritarian states, the freedom of speech and expression is heavily restricted and censored. In China, for example, to both restrain and monitor the citizens, specific words are censored by the state to prevent people from exchanging personal opinions about the regime in place when communicating online, as such could lead to anti-governmental protests.[9]


As social media are privately owned platforms, they are not legally bound by human rights laws but rather to their own internal community rules and ethics. Nevertheless, the principles of freedom of thought, opinion and expression are central components of the ‘online public sphere’ that is the internet, in which social media platforms hold a prominent place. Therefore, restricting individuals’ ability to express themselves, even when publishing false or misleading information, could amount to a form of censorship and risk undermining such principles. To protect a democratic way of life, the fundamental right of freedom of expression cannot be lost.


The risk is that once censorship starts, by targeting individuals like Donald Trump, it could create a ‘dangerous precedent’ [10], thus, allowing for similar bans to happen in the future, whether justified or not. The size and influence of social media companies has a significant impact towards what one might describe as the ‘online public realm’. Hence, by recognising that such platforms may have an authoritarian impact online, one can claim that the right to freedom of expression can easily be compromised, through social media bans, if it goes against their internal rules and policies.


Theoretically, as human rights laws set a minimum standard that must be followed, they ought to be absolute standards that apply to everyone equally, despite diverging opinions, to protect us from falling under undemocratic and absolutist regimes. However, by addressing the importance of the issues raised above, this does not mean that acts similar to those committed by Donald Trump should be left unchallenged. Indeed, in this particular scenario of around a decade of misuse, a ban from social media platforms appears to be morally the right decision. Despite this, the banning of an individual from online platforms, after years of misuse, highlights a problem that lies at the very core of social media and questions their current regulation model, which was supposed to trace and address such behaviour.


At what cost?


The aim of this article was to assess the applicability of the right to freedom of expression online. The case study of Donald Trump’s ban highlights a debate on whether to respect freedom of expression and human rights, generally, to an absolute standard, or whether to bend the rules whenever this is deemed justified, while accepting the risks such a decision might bear. The question is, therefore, what cost is better to pay. Should censorship on social media be enforced to prevent misuses which result to harmful behaviour, or should the right to freedom of expression online be protected at all costs?


A lead that could be worth following, to avoid indefinite bans from social media platforms, is by raising awareness, about the dangerous aspects of these platforms, among the public and specifically the younger population. The issues of misuse of social media such as the spread of fake news, the incitement of violence, the harassing of targeted individuals, etc., should be taught at school at primary, secondary and higher education levels. This could allow students to develop critical thinking and recognise such types of misuse before falling victim to them. Other forms of media could also be used to reach and inform the wider public such as the radio, TV news, newspapers, both in digital and paper versions as well as academic blogs. Clearly, staying informed and aiding in raising awareness on such issues is of vital importance to protect our rights, whether online or otherwise.



Endnotes

[1] Kari Paul, 'Four Years Of Propaganda': Trump Social Media Bans Come Too Late, Experts Say' (the Guardian, 2021) accessed 11 March 2021. [2] 'Twitter 'Permanently Suspends' Trump's Account' (BBC News, 2021) accessed 9 March 2021. [3] Shelly Tan, Youjin Shin and Danielle Rindler, 'How One Of America’s Ugliest Days Unravelled Inside And Outside The Capitol' (Washington Post, 2021) accessed 9 March 2021. [4] 'Donald Trump Speech "Save America" Rally Transcript January 6 - Rev' (Rev, 2021) accessed 28 February 2021. [5] Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Drew Harwell, ‘Twitter, Facebook locks Trump’s accounts amid D.C. riots’ (Washington Post, 2021) accessed 28 February 2021. [6] Kenya Evelyn, 'Capitol Attack: The Five People Who Died' (the Guardian, 2021) accessed 9 March 2021. [7] Christopher McFadden and others, 'A Chronological History Of Social Media' (Interestingengineering.com, 2021) accessed 11 March 2021. [8] 'Facebook Admits It Was Used To Incite Violence In Myanmar (Published 2018)' (Nytimes.com, 2018) accessed 27 February 2021. [9] Marco Silva, 'Why I Have To Censor Myself Online' (BBC News, 2019) accessed 28 February 2021. [10] Kari Paul, 'Twitter Chief Says Trump Ban Was Right Decision But Sets 'Dangerous Precedent' (the Guardian, 2021) accessed 1 March 2021.

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