Twitter suspends Donald Trump's account, but company's crackdown on misinformation must be systemic, impartial

The suspension of Trump’s account, however, does raise troubling questions about the thin line between curbing misinformation and hate speech on one hand, and suppressing free speech on the other hand

Neerad Pandharipande January 09, 2021 22:30:20 IST
Twitter suspends Donald Trump's account, but company's crackdown on misinformation must be systemic, impartial

File photo of Donald Trump. AP

From ‘Make America Great Again’ to ‘Stop the Steal’, the story of the United States in the past four years can well be told through Donald Trump’s tweets — preferably in ALL CAPS.

That story, however, ended a little prematurely on Twitter, with the platform having ‘permanently suspended’ Trump’s account, even as the US president’s exit from the White House is eleven days away.

Twitter’s action, coming as it did in the wake of the breach at the US Capitol, was sudden but not entirely unexpected. In the recent past, Twitter had flagged Trump’s tweets on a number of topics — including premature claims of election victory and a ‘cure’ for COVID-19 . After the violence at the US Capitol, Trump’s account was suspended and then reinstated. For a brief moment, it appeared that Trump was striking a note of reconciliation, as he said for the first time that he would leave the White House on 20 January. However, what appeared to be the last straw were two tweets in which he encouraged his supporters in emphatic terms, and in which he said that he would not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president.

The suspension of Trump’s account, however, does raise troubling questions about the thin line between curbing misinformation and hate speech on one hand, and suppressing free speech on the other hand. In order for Twitter to be seen as being fair in taking action against violations, it is imperative that such actions are not arbitrary. Would the ‘permanent suspension’ of Trump’s Twitter account pass the test of non-arbitrariness? It is difficult to say for certain.

Seen in isolation, the tweets for which Trump’s account got suspended were much milder in comparison to his own incendiary rhetoric in the past. For the record, the two offending tweets read as follows —

- “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”

- “To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

Twitter found these two posts to be in violation of its policy on Glorification of Violence. However, on 29 May, 2020, the US president got off relatively lightly for his infamous statement in the context of the Black Lives Matter protest, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” At the time, Twitter hid the post behind a warning that said that it ‘glorifies violence.’ However, there was no suspension of Trump’s account, temporary or permanent, and users could see the tweet if they would tap to see it.

Of course, the two recent tweets have to necessarily be seen in the context of the impending transfer of power. In the present case, the social media giant has essentially contended that Trump may use its platform to impede the orderly transition of power on 21 January. While that certainly seems to be a legitimate concern, it is not clear as to what purpose will be served by continuing the suspension indefinitely.

The possibility, as expressed by some political commentators, that this move was aimed at getting into the ‘good books’ of the new government, is also one that cannot be ignored.

Also, a key question remains as to whether Twitter, or for that matter other social media giants, will be as enthusiastic about countering inciteful speech in developing countries as in more affluent ones. For the most part, the challenge is not one of lack of policy. Twitter’s ‘Hateful Conduct Policy’ applies not just to people making violent threats, but also ‘inciting fear’ and using ‘racist and sexist tropes’. Penalties can range from removing a tweet to permanent suspension of an account.

However, as is the experience in India, Twitter has often desisted from taking action against speech, by any rational standards, would violate its standards. These include both posts by accounts of prominent people, as well as people with relatively less following.

To cite an example, in April 2018, a Twitter user said that he cancelled his Ola cab as the driver was Muslim, and that he did not want to give money to ‘jihadi people.’ In response to complaints, Twitter said that the post was not in violation of its rules.

Other measures that the social media firm could take include cracking down on bots, and considering a ban on anonymous accounts.

However, this is unlikely to happen as long as large social media firms continue to treat hate and misinformation as business models in developing countries in India.

If the suspension of Trump’s account signals the beginning of a more proactive approach towards combating hateful speech, then it will be a welcome change. Otherwise, this will remain an isolated incident that has little bearing in terms of ensuring a less toxic internet.

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