How Much Power Should Social Media Giants Have?
January 17, 2021 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Section 230CensorshipTwitterFacebookAmazon

How Much Power Should Social Media Giants Have?

The debate has once again heated up in the aftermath of the terrible Capitol Hill riot.

Large technology firms' content-moderation decisions in the wake of the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 will add to long-standing debates regarding their influence over online speech, which may accelerate global regulatory action. Media reports outline U.S. President Donald Trump's use of his social media accounts encouraging his supporters who ultimately broke into the Capitol. Similarly, significant attention has focused on how rioters used Parler, a Twitter-like microblogging and social networking site popular with right-wing groups and individuals, to organize and communicate, at times violently, before and during their siege.

  • Facebook announced it would ban the president's personal account at least through the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day; while Twitter, after initially only suspending his account temporarily, permanently banned it after two tweets the company said violated its policy against the glorification of violence. In making their announcements, each firm cited its responsibilities to remove content linked to violence.

  • Apple and Google removed Parler from their online app stores. Both cited Parler's failure to moderate violent language exchanged on the platform as justification for their actions.

  • Citing similar concerns over violent content on Parler, Amazon suspended the platform from its web-hosting service, effectively removing Parler from the Internet unless another cloud company agrees to host it. On Jan. 11, Parler's CEO said that every possible replacement has refused to do business with the company because of its association with the Capitol siege, and filed suit against Amazon for allegedly suspending the platform out of "political animus" rather than legitimate public safety concerns.

The technology giants' moves come after years of pressure from Democratic lawmakers and lobbyists to more proactively moderate political speech, particularly that of the president, and in advance of increased scrutiny anticipated from lawmakers in the upcoming congressional session. Until recently, technology giants have mostly argued that it is in the public interest for political speech, even if seen as toxic or questionable, to be heard. The widespread rebuke from both conservatives and liberals alike of the president's social media posts seen as inciting violence and the rioters' use of Parler to explicitly carry out violence appears, however, to have been so overwhelming as to have finally convinced the companies to take bold action against perceived rulebreakers.

  • Technology firms have been repeatedly accused, particularly by Democratic lawmakers and activists, of not doing enough to implement their own moderation policies by allowing the president and his allies to post content that violates their terms of service. In advance of last year's election and in its aftermath, Facebook and Twitter began to label, hide or even remove individual posts that contained misleading or false information — including from the president and some of his prominent supporters — but social media companies had until now refused to outright ban the president's personal accounts.

  • Companies are also facing internal pressure to take action. More than 300 Twitter employees signed a memo calling on the company to permanently ban the president from the platform, while the recently formed union of Alphabet (Google's parent) employees called on YouTube, also owned by Alphabet, to ban the president.

  • Democrats, who will control the White House and both houses of Congress, are widely expected to crack down on multiple aspects of Big Tech's power. This has led some observers to suggest, regardless of veracity, that the companies' moves in the wake of the Capitol siege are designed to curry favor with the incoming Biden administration. On Jan. 7, Jennifer Palmieri, a political adviser and former White House Communications Director for President Barack Obama, tweeted, "It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump's destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them."

Big Tech's actions will add momentum to ongoing global debates over their power in multiple areas. U.S. technology firms are facing increasing pushback on multiple fronts, suggesting their recent moves against the president's personal social media accounts and Parler will add to growing global concerns about Big Tech's influence, even among left-wing commentators who strongly disagree with the president and sites like Parler.

  • Domestically, Republicans, who have long believed that the tech giants have an anti-conservative bias, will portray firms' recent actions as further evidence that they need to be reined in. While Republicans may differ in their diagnosis of Big Tech's fundamental flaws than do Democrats — who focus more on companies' allegedly anti-competitive behaviors and failure to effectively police what they believe is online hate speech — both sides are likely to take aim at technology giants in the upcoming congressional session, which could see renewed calls for Big Tech to face large fines, possible forced divestments or even a partial rollback of the legal shield against liability for content on their platforms.

  • In Europe, where authorities last month unveiled ambitious proposals to regulate Big Tech, some prominent political leaders have criticized Facebook and Twitter's bans, even as they strongly rebuke Trump's online speech, demonstrating the complexity of content-moderation decisions. On Jan. 11, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the bans "problematic," while French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said, "The regulation of the digital world cannot be done by the digital oligarchy."

  • On Jan. 11, a Ugandan presidential spokesman said that Facebook's recent removal of several accounts linked to President Yoweri Museveni's campaign, allegedly because of inauthentic behavior, amounted to interference on behalf of the opposition in this week's presidential elections, demonstrating how Big Tech's content-moderation actions have global repercussions. Likewise, in India, both main political parties accuse Facebook of favoring the other in its content-moderation decisions; the leader of the ruling party's youth wing tweeted that, "if they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone" and suggested that country should quickly pass new rules regulating technology firms.


Big Tech's Actions After the U.S. Capitol Siege Renew Debate Over Its Power is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical forecasting and intelligence publication from RANE, the Risk Assistance Network + Exchange. As the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor Worldview brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is a RANE (Risk Assistance Network + Exchange) company.

Image: Reuters.