Trump accuses Twitter of stifling free speech

Watch the birdie: More than 150 million people worldwide use Twitter on a daily basis. © The Daily Beast

Is free speech under threat? President Trump has accused Twitter of trying to censor him, while British journalists claim that the government is using underhand tactics to thwart them.

Donald Trump was incandescent. Twitter had just exposed him – the world’s most influential social-media user, with 80 million followers – as a liar. Links had been added to his tweets inviting his followers to “Get the facts”, and highlighting three false claims he had made. “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH,” he tweeted, “and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!”

Trump’s claims were about postal voting which, he says, has allowed massive electoral fraud favouring his Democratic opponents. In fact, there were only four proven cases of fraud in the 2016 US elections – three of them involving people who had voted for Trump twice.

But Trump’s fury at Twitter highlights a hugely problematic issue: how far should social-media companies police their users? Fuel has been added to the fire by a damning report in the Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s feeble response to hate speech.

It says that a Facebook team warned executives, in 2018, that its algorithms were polarising people instead of bringing them together. Unless changes were made, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention”.

The executives already knew that 64% of people who joined extremist Facebook groups did so because of algorithmic recommendations. They also knew that these groups were mainly right-wing and driven by a few users – possibly bots – putting up multiple posts.

Most of this research, however, was ignored. Facebook’s head of policy, Joel Kaplan, argued that trying to make users behave more civilly was “paternalistic”.

Many Americans think that tech companies already interfere too much with what is posted. In 2018, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, accused them of “intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas”, while 85% of Republican voters believe them guilty of censorship.

But governments are being accused of censorship too. Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, and Russia have all passed laws against spreading fake news – defined in Russia’s case as anything showing “blatant disrespect” for the state. In Britain, journalists at Zoom press conferences have complained of their microphones being muted so that they cannot ask follow-up questions.

Is free speech under threat?

Watch your mouth

Some say there is no doubt about it. Left-wing and right-wing commentators alike complain that Facebook can, as a private company, introduce any rules it wants about what appears on its site. Authoritarian governments, meanwhile, are using fake news as an excuse to stifle criticism. Even more liberal ones have been seeking to discredit respectable news media by accusing them of bias.

Others say that people have never been freer to voice their opinions. Twitter and Facebook thrive by encouraging users to express views which few would have dared share publicly in the past, and they are hardly likely to abandon such a successful business model. Governments may try to crack down on criticism but, with so many social-media outlets available, it is a losing battle.

You Decide

  1. Would you follow a politician on social media if you knew they were a liar?
  2. Should it be illegal to have an anonymous social media account?

Activities

  1. Paint a portrait of Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg.
  2. Write a dialogue in the form of Twitter posts (each up to 280 characters long) between two people arguing about the freedom of speech .

Some People Say...

“If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Noam Chomsky, American philosopher and political activist, sometimes called “the father of modern linguistics”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Twitter has let many false statements by Trump go uncorrected in the past. Its change of heart is seen as a reaction to his tweets about Joe Scarborough, a political opponent who hosts an influential TV show. Trump accuses Scarborough of murdering Lori Kay Klausutis, an intern who died in his office in 2001. In fact, Klausutis had a heart condition and died when she fell and hit her head on her desk. Her husband wrote to Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, last week asking him to delete Trump’s tweets.
What do we not know?
How far Facebook’s attitude is a reaction to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was revealed in 2018 that the consulting firm had improperly obtained millions of people’s Facebook data for use in political campaigns. Facebook executives are said to have taken the view that “the media hates us no matter what we do”, so there was no point in making changes. Mark Zuckerberg recently said he would stand up against “those who say that new types of communities forming on social media are dividing us”.

Word Watch

Incandescent
Furious. The word literally means “glowing with heat”.
Postal voting
People who cannot get to a polling station in an election can send their votes in by post instead. Critics of the system object that someone could steal the voting form, or force them to complete it in a particular way.
Algorithms
Formulas used for problem-solving by a computer. The word comes from the name of a 9th-Century Arab mathematician.
Polarising
Pushing to opposite extremes, like the North and South Pole.
Bots
Internet robots that are software applications running automated tasks over the internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are simple and repetitive, much faster than a person could.
Joel Kaplan
Before joining Facebook, he was deputy chief of staff to Republican President George W Bush.
Civilly
Politely.
Paternalistic
Preventing them from making decisions about their own lives, like an interfering parent – “pater” being the Latin word for father.
Attorney general
The most senior legal official in the US government. Jeff Sessions held the post for 21 months, but resigned after revelations that he had falsely denied meeting Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.

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