On 6 January 2021, Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump from their platforms. They argued that by spreading misinformation he had been an inciting influence behind the US Capitol Hill rampage. How did we get here? How could a single person’s Tweets be powerful enough to start a riot? And when did we decide that social media executives should get to make the call about who gets to speak on their platforms and who doesn’t?
The European Union certainly sees a need to act on social media companies and the platforms they operate. The Digital Services Act, currently under discussion between the EU institutions, aims to regulate the types of content moderation large platforms are expected (and allowed) to undertake.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Karina, who sees no problem with social media bans. She argues that social media platforms “are allowed to do what they want as far as banning content” because they are private companies.
We brought Karina’s comment to Prabhat Agarwal, who is the Head of Unit responsible for the Digital Services Act at the European Commission. How would he respond to Karina?
This is an interesting question and one we grappled with when we were designing the Digital Services Act. Freedom of Speech is one of the European Union’s founding values, and it is guaranteed under the Charter, but it also has limits. Incitement to hatred, or anti-semitic violence, for example, are not protected speech. We expect companies to act on illegal content to ensure that the online environment is safe for users and bans are an important tool to ensure that their services are not abused. We recognise this in the Digital Services Act.
However, in the DSA, we ask companies to be clear about the terms under which such suspensions occur and to be consistent and diligent when enforcing them. Such bans are for the first time subject to redress mechanisms and can actually be challenged. This is an important element to ensure that user rights are fully respected. This is a very prominent element in the new regulation.
To get another perspective, we also brought Karina’s comment to Alexandra Geese, a German Member of the European Parliament for the Green/EFA group who has been closely involved with the Digital Services Act proposal. What would she say?
Freedom of expression is already strongly limited for a huge amount of the population. Women, for example, receive so much hate speech online that a majority of them say they don’t feel free to express their opinion on the internet. The same is true for young people and people who belong to an ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority. Clearly, we already have strong limitations of freedom of speech online. The question is, how do we balance freedom of expression and moderation of harmful content.
Next up, we asked Benjamin Fischer, Programme Officer at the Alfred Landecker Foundation, a Berlin-based organisation supporting open digital democracy, what he would say to Karina’s comment:
If this debate was only about questions of legality, it would be easy to just remove illegal content. However, we know that the online sphere is rigged by algorithms that nudge people into more and more extreme narratives. Social media platforms and politicians are engaged in a blame game about content moderation that is not offering proper solutions. We need to empower civil society actors to disrupt these dynamics and promote an open debate on how we as a society want to interact with one another online.
Someone who feels disconnected from the so-called “mainstream” discourse is our reader Franck. He tells us that he’s lost all faith in established news sources, sarcastically commenting: “Acceptable propaganda is mainstream media, anything else is fake news & conspiracy, everybody knows that.”
We asked Alex Agius-Saliba, a Maltese MEP for the S&D group and the rapporteur of the Digital Services Act, what he would say to Franck. Shouldn’t social media be a safe space for someone who feels disconnected from “mainstream media”?
Yes, it should be. But the internet should not be a safe space for illegal content. The DSA creates a level playing field between the online and offline world. Obviously, this is difficult because certain types of speech may be illegal in Germany but not in Malta. Here, we quickly get into the more complicated issue of speech that is not clearly illegal but still may be harmful. I do not think that companies should have the right to delete this type of content unilaterally. We would risk over-removal of content and infringe upon our citizens’ fundamental rights to free speech.
Next, we brought the same comment to Josephine Ballon, Head of Legal at HateAid, a consultation centre for victims of digital violence. How would she respond to Franck’s cynicism?
The internet promises that everyone can have free access to information, but social media platforms create filter bubbles where every user, including Franck, is only confronted with a certain narrative. Malicious actors have been using these dynamics to strategically spread disinformation and hate speech. People use social media to participate in real-life discourse; the online world is not a separate entity and I believe that social media would benefit from a more balanced discourse that does not create these filter bubbles.
We also asked Alexandra Geese for her thoughts on this complicated issue.
Censoring content is very dangerous. We shouldn’t give that power to tech companies, and we shouldn’t give that power to governments. The real issue is transparency. Right now, the platforms can do whatever they want because there is no scrutiny of the data they collect and how they use it. The corporations behind these platforms make more money if the content they promote is polarising. Therefore, the European institutions must stop these companies from collecting so much data to ensure that information on the internet flows freely and not just in the most profitable way for the platforms.
Do social media bans violate free speech? Or are they necessary to create a safe online environment? How can we balance freedom of expression and freedom from harm online? Do you feel censored online? Let us know your thoughts below and we will bring your comments to experts and policymakers!