Banning politicians from social media? Not so straightforward

On Wednesday, May 5, the Facebook Oversight Board, the group created by the platform to hear user appeals on precedential decisions, announced that it will uphold the social media company’s decision to take down former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. The ban will be temporary, and the board insisted that Facebook review its decision in six months.

The question as to whether or not social media platforms could ban world leaders, as well as how they regulate these figures, became a hot-button topic following the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. As then-President Trump posted a video on Facebook and Instagram telling the people who stormed the Capitol, “We love you. You’re very special people,” social media giants moved swiftly. Facebook was the first major social media site to deplatform, or ban, the former president. Twitter, which was Trump’s main method of communicating, followed suit. Within a week, the president had been banned or restricted by some of the most popular U.S. social media platforms, including TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, Twitch and Spotify.

Many on the right decried the decisions. To them, this was liberal social media censorship run unchecked. Many on the left, however, rejoiced. During his time in office Trump tweeted numerous false claims, and to those enjoying this decision, this meant “the deceiver-in-chief” had been stopped, at least online. The perspective we may need, however, is one of both criticism and celebration.

We can simultaneously be relieved when social media companies step in to ban users who harass others and spread misinformation and disinformation. We can also be horrified that when this person is a world leader, a social media company has muzzled the figurehead of an entire country. In banning a president, prime minister or other leader, social media companies interfere with political expression. They also regulate how these leaders communicate with their citizens and constituents.

Traditionally, in the United States, presidential communication was privileged. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats were often carried by radio stations without question. In 1947, Harry S. Truman became the first U.S. president to deliver a televised address, and since then, networks will interrupt their regularly scheduled programming for the most important speeches. And with the creation of the 24/7 news cycle, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, among others, began carrying all presidential addresses, even unofficial addresses. This, however, was put to the test in recent years, as some began cutting away from Trump’s press conferences.

Few could have foreseen social media becoming a chief political pulpit. Without the gatekeeping of network executives and programmers, politicians speak freely to the masses. This, however, has become a problematic issue in the “post-truth” world. In these instances, social media platforms must weigh silencing a world leader against allowing mis- and disinformation to spread.

The 2020 decade will see the battle between social media power and political expression. Social media and internet CEOs Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai have spent a lot of virtual time on Capitol Hill in the last year. Their presence, and the questions they face from elected officials, show that the fight to figure out how to regulate the social media titans is waging. The companies, however, have pushed back on this regulation at every turn.

On the state level, some are also fighting back against these decisions. Florida is on the verge of implementing legislation that would fine social media companies that knowingly deplatform political candidates. The penalties would be hefty — $250,000 per day.  

Even if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who has supported the bill — signs it into law, Florida’s law is almost certain to fail in the courts. At the core of social media platforms banning politicians, and getting fined for doing so, is the fundamental basis that at the end of the day, social media companies are private companies. They can run themselves how they like.

Such a bill like Florida’s may be doomed because it reaps what has been sown in U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last 20 years: Cases such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. have massively expanded the rights of corporations for political expression. In deplatforming presidents and prime ministers, are social media corporations just using their constitutional right to free expression? Or does this idea need to be reevaluated now that world leaders speak through the platforms provided by private communication corporations? The latter is more likely. 

Jessica Maddox is an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama, where she specializes in social media, culture and society.

Tags Capitol insurrection Donald Trump Facebook Facebook's Trump ban Instagram Jack Dorsey Mark Zuckerberg misinformation Ron DeSantis Social media social media bans Sundar Pichai Trump ban Twitter
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