Donald Trump is gone from Twitter. Since his defeat in the 2020 elections, the President has continuously tweeted disputed and unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud.
However, it was his alleged mobilization, or at least failure to provide timely condemnation, of violent supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol that proved to be the final straw. The outgoing President now finds himself permanently banned from his favorite platform.
This unprecedented development represents the first time in the history of social media that a platform has decided to hit a sitting president of the United States with a permanent ban. In their explanation, Twitter stated that they have “permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
Twitter’s rights as a private company
Immediately after President Trump’s account was suspended, voices from across the spectrum rose in both affirmation and condemnation of Twitter’s decision. One side of the debate holds the ban to be an attack on free speech, while the other states that, as a private company, Twitter is free to deal with their users the way they see fit.
Upon entering into an agreement with a social media platform, the user accepts that they must comply with whatever terms of usage are set out. Since Twitter is a private company operating a platform, it is their responsibility alone to set and implement their terms and conditions.
Section 230 and the question of liability
Let us consider the other side of the debate. As a platform, in compliance with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Twitter is not liable for any user-generated content. Whether it is responsible for content moderation, and in what ways this should be conducted, is up to Twitter to decide. Numerous court cases, such as Force v. Facebook, Inc., 934 F.3d 53 (2nd Cir. 2019), have stated that the platform is not liable for user-generated content, even in such atrocious circumstances as terrorist activity.
Therefore, if a platform is not legally accountable for the user-generated content it hosts, such as President Trump’s tweets, if it decides to limit posts, mark them as suspicious, or even suspend accounts, is this an attack on free speech?
Free speech as a legal principle
Legally, and in principle, Twitter banning Donald Trump is not an attack on free speech. The principle of free speech protects an individual in cases of government persecution. In this particular case, this means that the voices of Donald Trump, his supporters, and opponents must not be stifled by the U.S. government. Whatever the medium by which they communicate is irrelevant. Whether the particular platform itself is willing to facilitate their speech is irrelevant. What matters is that they must not be legally prevented from voicing their opinions.
In this particular case, we are free to agree or disagree with Twitter’s decision on banning Donald Trump. However it may be the long-term perspective around how we understand and use social media that should cause concern.
The role of algorithms in promoting echo chambers
It is often argued that some blame should be apportioned to social media platforms over the functioning of their algorithms. For instance, in Force v. Facebook, the Second Circuit Court ruled that the way Facebook uses algorithms to present users with content falls within the scope of its role as a distributor, not as a publisher. These algorithms analyze the user’s previous behavior and suggest various types of content to them.
Given how these algorithms work, users are most likely to be presented with the content they are expected to respond to positively, leading to the creation of small ideological bubbles, with little to no exposure to alternative perspectives.
Furthermore, the fact that supporters of both the left and the right are creating and moving to different social media platforms will not help with this lack of exposure to diversity of opinion. In this sense, social media platforms are in danger of failing to fulfill their original raison d’être – to connect people and serve as forums for exchanging ideas.
A brighter future for social media may well be found in social media platforms where debates and diversity of opinion are valued and discussions around controversial topics can be conducted in a safer and more respectful manner, with more focus more on the argument as opposed to heated emotions.
Maybe this way, the hearts and minds can align and help us lead lives with more substance and positivity? Or perhaps free speech is, in fact, endangered by companies willing to silence anyone who disagrees with their political leanings?
There are many questions, more than we may answer. But this debate has now well and truly started, and will be an important question for our generation. Perhaps now would be an opportune time to start a real pro-liberty social network.
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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.