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Is a lifelong ban on Twitter and Facebook a threat to democracy?

Source: Keystone.

Last month, Donald Trump was banned from Facebook and Twitter following the raid on the Capitol. The former US president is now deprived of the right to communicate with his 33 million friends on Facebook and address his 88 million followers on Twitter for life. If the immediate suspension of his account can be understood in the political context of emergency and national security, the ban has more serious political, social and legal consequences that cannot be overlooked.

The Geneva Press club organised a debate last week to question the impact of such a move on democracy. Is the ban an impediment to freedom of expression or an acknowledgement of responsibility by Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey? If the guest panellists all agreed on the legality of the initial suspension, they measured the risks and implications of a lifelong ban in relation to the role of social media platforms in today’s society.

A legal context. The suspension of an account is authorised in the US legal system. As private companies, Facebook and Twitter control their infrastructure, their services and their conditions of use. They can exercise their commercial law as they see fit, University of Paris 3 Professor and European expert, Divina Frau Meigs explains.

“Twitter has long resisted the idea of censoring and reporting misinformation, particularly during the Covid crisis. The company believed that because of the high presence of journalists on the platform, disinformation would be balanced and corrected automatically. Twitter underestimated the importance of the phenomenon and only reacted at the end of the process.”

The role and responsibility of internet platforms is defined by 1996 Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, where the companies are defined as providers and not publishers of content, protecting them from the responsibility of what is posted online. The fact is that the impact and influence of social networks was far from being measured at the time of its implementation. The situation is different today. The election of president Trump and the Brexit have shown the power of social media in a political context.

Having collaborated with these companies while preparing the Kofi Annan Foundation report on elections and democracy in the digital age, Sébastien Brack adds:

“They are embarrassed by the legal limbo they are facing and ask for regulations. The global nature of these networks and the number of members on each of them makes the role of publisher difficult if not impossible to hold.”

Read also: Trump, social media and the way to responsibility

Social and political implications. A ban is an act of censorship. But before the ban, there is the problem of reporting questionable political posts. Technically it is an interference in the free democratic debate, media and digital law specialist, Nicolas Capt argues.

“Why put a warning on posts published by Trump and not on those published by other politicians? Does this mean that a tweet that wouldn’t be tagged can be used or understood without risk?”

The implications are social as well, DiploFoundation executive director, Jovan Kurbalija explains.

“Twitter had a legal right to intervene as an immediate and urgent reaction. The concern with the decision is the cancellation aspect. Our diplomacy began when our predecessors started to hear the message rather than eat the messenger. We should hear the message. Cancelling the voice of a person is problematic. It can only  be done with utmost checks and balances and transparency of decisions.”

Solutions in the multilateral approach. The social media debate has changed in the past ten years, Brack explains. At the time of the Arab Spring, everyone was saluting the opportunities brought by social networks in many countries. The perception of these platforms is very different in emerging and transitional democracies. They welcome the openness and direct access to information they provide in comparison to state-controlled national media.

And it is precisely the citizen’s right to communicate that should be reinstated, Kurbalija says. In this case, Trump. It could be a strong message from the new administration to bring society back together. Moreover, there is a need for a solution around Section 230, he continues, with measures that are between editorial and totally free treatment.

This is where Geneva could position itself and contribute to help solve the problem on an international level, and find a balance between freedom of expression, democracy and protection of the public order, Kurbalija concludes.

Once thing is certain Davina Frau Meigs adds:

“The Americans will first decide for themselves and they’re doing it right now. Platforms need to be regulated. Other influences such as antitrust laws could help make the change happen.”

The Biden administration has expressed its will to change Section 230, while the European Union works on its Digital Services Act. In addition to a new legal framework, the panelists offer possible solutions in digital sobriety and a form of self regulation of the social media platforms themselves.

Read also: A section 230 for EU tech companies?