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August 1, 2021

Weaponizing Twitter: Both Sides Are Wrong

The power of government should always be limited, and there is a role and a place in every society for civic action.

The ability of social media to transmit information and to shape global political situations on the ground has exploded in the past two decades. Social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google have risen to profound levels of influence on elections, security, diplomacy, and of course, mob reactions to pretty much any controversial event around the world. As a result, there has been a concerted effort to control these platforms at the state level in many countries. But whether in China, the United States, or any other country, governments should not use their power to bully private companies into censorship, “fact checking,” or any other action with the sole exception of credible threats of violence. Due to the failure of Twitter and other networks to properly address calls to violence, democratic (and undemocratic) states are increasingly pressuring the companies to change course, but both the governments and the networks are in the wrong.

While the platforms, all originally founded in the US, are largely rooted in the principles of free expression and free speech, they remain private companies. As such, they have a right to dictate their own content standards and policies, and the legal protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields the platforms from liability for third party content. After Twitter “fact-checked” one of US President Donald Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots, labeling it “potentially misleading,” the president openly threatened the network. Trump proposed an executive order to change the scope of Section 230 to argue that removing content violates free speech of the users. This is a gross expansion of the powers of the federal government and completely inappropriate. At the same time, there is a difference between correctly (or incorrectly) fact checking content on a private company’s platform, and holding the platforms accountable for real-world violence that occurs as a result of their refusal to re
move incitement to violence. The two should not be conflated, and Twitter should be held accountable when they fail to take necessary action.

In recent weeks, Israel’s new Minister of Strategic Affairs Orit Farkash-Hacohen wrote an open letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey urging him to remove Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei from Twitter for his explicit and repeated calls for the destruction of Israel. Indeed, Iran follows up their speech with action, and has for decades. They are the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism, they are building bases in Syria from which they target Israel and they fiscally and militarily equip terrorist organization Hezbollah, which is responsible for the deaths of hundreds. Iran is the only nation in the world that routinely and openly calls for the violent destruction of another nation: Israel. Not only that, they use American-based platforms like Twitter to spread and foment antisemitic calls to violence – and this goes completely unchecked. On Iran’s “Al Quds Day,” the regime used social media to promote the “final solution” depicting the Iranian takeover of Jerusalem with Hezbollah flags flying. Twitter, at the time of this writing, has done nothing to censor or remove this content. Similarly, they’ve done nothing to remove Khamenei and his calls to violence against Israel, which are broadcast out to over 770,000 followers through Twitter’s platform.

CONTRAST THAT with Twitter’s interference with Trump’s tweets. On May 28, Twitter placed yet another warning on Trump’s tweet about the protesters in Minnesota following the tragic death of George Lloyd. Trump’s tweet stated that he supports the National Guard to quell the protests if need be, and then crassly added “when the looting begins the shooting begins,” a reference to race riots in the 1960s when Miami’s police chief, Walter Headley, said something similar about cracking down on what he called “hoodlums.” Twitter placed a warning in response stating, “This tweet violates our content policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.” Absurdly, Twitter believes this tweet could “inspire violence today” – and yet the human rights-violating dictator of Iran, who murders his own protesters and actively funds terrorists who murder civilians in Israel, who openly calls for violent destruction of Israel on Twitter’s platform, doesn’t inspire violence? Setting aside whether or not Twitter is right, there is a clear bias that has to stop. Twitter must remove content that contains credible threats or glorification of violence that inspire action. They have repeatedly failed to do so.

Ironically, Trump’s executive order is, in fact, the opposite of the restrictions regimes like Iran, China, Pakistan and other nations place on Twitter to actively censor free speech. Trump’s executive order would limit the platform’s ability to remove content, potentially even content that inspires violence. But removing content shouldn’t be dictated by government, whether for free speech or against it. It is an overreach of the US. government to dictate how a private company should permit content on its own platform that does not put anyone in physical danger.

The power of government should always be limited, and there is a role and a place in every society for civic action. It is our role as activists, or just concerned members of the community,  to work against the elevation of misinformation or hateful speech on these platforms – but it is most certainly not the role of government.

Social media platforms are not bound by the US Constitution in the sense that they are entitled to set whatever free speech (or lack thereof) standards they choose. We may dislike them, complain about them, write about them, lobby against them, but to threaten Twitter as the President of the United States is still fast approaching the slippery slope of state-sponsored censorship in states like Cuba, China, and others – a situation with drastic consequences. Twitter and Trump are both wrong here.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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