Can Donald Trump block people on Twitter? As with many other things, the President of the United States of America believes he can, having recently appealed a ruling against him by the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals. The courts believe that by blocking people from his personal @realDonaldTrump account on Twitter, Trump is in violation of the Constitution seeing that he is conducting government business through there. A block prevents these users from seeing his tweets from their own personal account.
While the matter rests on the argument that Trump is using this account in a personal capacity and not as an extension of his office as POTUS, it does again touch on a larger matter. Are Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, not actually publishers instead of social media platforms?
As it stands now, these sites would be quite happy to conduct business as the latter. Much like a printing press cannot be held responsible for the content published in newspapers, the social media giants would like to argue that they are not liable for any of the fake news, libel, copyright infringements or harassment made by their users. But, can they simply absolve themselves of these problems?
The platforms do indeed enforce their terms of service, and have the power of censorship, gatekeeping and de-platforming. And it’s here where we come closer to the heart of the problem. Since the social media platforms are self-regulated, the above is done with very little transparency or consistency. With these companies beholden to the almighty dollar, a profit motive could also skew their policies about who gets to say what on their platforms.
Stateside, Twitter has been accused by the right and the left of censorship, while it could be seen that divisive but popular figures, such as Trump, are provided with more leeway than others to tweet what they like. YouTube uses demonetisation as a form of punishment against YouTubers that are part of their partnership programme, a process that has resulted in many horror stories. But it’s Zuckerberg’s Facebook that most resembles a dumpster fire, in no small part due to the company’s myriad of ethical and moral short fallings. Playing fast and loose with user data, the manipulation of the newsfeed, the proliferation of fake news and the Cambridge Analytica scandal have left Facebook with very little to argue with against outside regulation.
One problematic area is the platforms’ treatment of news. With traditional media in decline, most news nowadays is consumed online. According to a recent report commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, this is certainly true for young people. For many, exposure to news happens indirectly through social media, rather than them seeking it out from direct news sources. With 70% of teens using social media several times a day (and 72% believing tech companies are manipulating them to spend more time on their sites), having a regulated space becomes even more important. Especially when considering that, according to a study done by Common Sense, close to two-thirds of teen social media users report that they “often” or “sometimes” come across racist, sexist, homophobic or religious-based hate content.
While concerns about news have to be addressed, we also need to admit that social media is not a publisher in the traditional sense of the word. At the height of its powers, The Sun tabloid in the UK had a circulation of close to four million papers per day. Facebook currently 2.41bn active users active users, spread across the globe. It’s clearly a pertinent question to ask how to regulate such a beast, but it needs to start somewhere.
Both the U.S. Department of Justice and legislators in the EU are looking into the large tech companies and asking questions about monopolistic practices, data protection and more. Much like the dilemma of eating an elephant, the regulation of the social media behemoths has to proceed one bite at a time. The entrée to this whole dilemma should be to get them listed as publisher and have them submit to similar regulations that other publishers need to adhere to. Kicking this problem down the road will only lead to larger scandals in future.
Charlie Stewart is CEO of Rogerwilco, an independent, award-winning performance marketing agency based in Cape Town, South Africa. Founded by CEO Charlie Stewart and MD Jakes Redelinghuys in 2008, it employs 40 strategists, creatives and digital specialists. Follow @rogerwilco_sa.