Should social media platforms do their own censoring?

There is no doubt that the Trump bans raised important questions about the role of Facebook and Twitter in shaping political discourse and information online

Trump out
Trump out

When Facebook and Twitter suspended then President Trump’s account with them, questions were raised as to whether such action amounted to censorship.

Others claimed that what Facebook and Twitter had done is simply decide that Trump will not have a direct line through their platform to broadcast his ideas to millions of people at a time.

They also argued that this is the kind of editorial decision taken regularly when it happens in television or print news. Comparisons are odious, and somehow, this one also smacks like an excuse. More so, since these companies claim they are neutral arbiters who make no editorial interventions.

It does seem that nowadays, social media companies are getting more iynvolved as intermediaries in news and political coverage and the difference between how they present themselves and how they actually function has become a sore point.

There is no doubt that the Trump bans raised important questions about the role of Facebook and Twitter in shaping political discourse and information online.

American technology industry consultant Lon Safko – author of ‘The Social Media Bible’ – insisted that social media platforms had overwhelmingly censored Trump and his administration. According to him, “Any form of censorship, any form, is unacceptable. Social platforms such as Facebook, whose primary business is open communication between its over 2.7 billion members, have a moral and legal responsibility to allow those conversations to transpire, organically... And, if the viewer disagrees or is offended by that conversation, then it is their right to simply close the window and walk away.”

Since leaving office, Trump officially opened the ‘Office of the Former President’ and used this ‘entity’ to get back onto Twitter in quite a roundabout way, although it didn’t bring the expected response he would have liked. Of more than 60,000 tweets on the day this Twitter account was opened, few were supportive of the new office.

Private conversations should remain uncensored, of course. Phone companies, for example, do not have the ability to limit what people talk to one another on their networks. And they cannot decide to not let customers – that are of one political party or another – use their services.

But inputs on social media are not private.

In Malta, we have already had libel court cases on comments posted by individuals on the social networks. But there is a subtle difference between these and libel cases about some written article in the newspapers. Every newspaper has a registered editor who checks the contents of whatever is printed and is therefore also responsible at law for what is published in his paper.

There is no such restraint in the case of the social media. Nobody checks posts for libel before they are ‘published’ on the social media. One can only sue the person making a statement but not the entity allowing that person to say his piece on its social platform.

The problem is even more complicated because a substantial number of Facebook and Twitter users do not live in the US but in other parts of the world.

Different countries have different laws and definitions on the ‘same’ issues. We speak of the illegality of racist comments, of hate speech, of seditious incitement, of justifying violence, and other illegalities.

These issues are interpreted differently in different countries. And, the importance of the right for ‘free speech’ does not have the same clout in all the Constitutions of the world.

There is, for example, not one definition of ‘racist comments’ applicable to every country. We have seen this in incidents in football where matches were disrupted and players were suspended for comments that were considered racist by the powers that be, while others considered them innocuous; probably as they would not have been considered abusive or illegal in the social milieu that they come from.

Some countries are taking drastic action. Turkey has enacted a law regulating the public use of social platforms. The law obliges social media outlets to have representatives responsible for removing unlawful content and to block access to harmful content.

In the UK, the ‘Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill’ targets online sites – including posts on social media – that feature criminal content, cyber-bulling, and content likely to promote eating disorders, self-harm or suicide.

So, do we legislate or let the owners of the social platforms do their own censoring according to their own parameters? How can we be sure that such decisions would, in fact, be taken because of commercial considerations rather than for ethical reasons and be free of political pressures?

These are the unresolved problems ahead.

Carnival holidays are sacred

Last Wednesday, the PM suggested that it would be good for schools to consider not having the mid-term holidays now and instead postponing them to a later date so as to avoid spreading the COVID virus.

Robert Abela was speaking at a press conference during which he announced some modifications to existing COVID restrictions.

I was not surprised when I learnt that Malta’s two unions representing teachers had immediately reacted negatively to the Prime Minister’s suggestion.

The MUT declared that after taking note of the government suggestion that schools remain open for mid-term holidays it categorically “does not agree with this suggestion and it is not ready to hold any discussions regarding the school calendar.”

The ‘rival’ teachers’ union, the UPE – Union of Professional Educators – also declared that it opposed the postponement of carnival holidays from the agreed calendar. This union is still questioning what was agreed a few weeks ago between the MUT and the Government after the recent teacher’s strike.

Attempting to remove Carnival holidays from the school calendar is a sore point for the MUT – even though these holidays are now being termed ‘mid-term holidays’. In fact, the UPE described them as what they really are.

For teachers’ unions, it seems that carnival holidays are sacred. Some old-timers might recall that when Malta was still a British colony, in 1952, the MUT had adamantly refused to renounce the carnival holidays when Carnival was postponed in view of the death of King George VI on February 6. An industrial dispute ensued. That was some 70 years ago.

For the MUT, carnival holidays are definitely sacred.