Emily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University
Donald Trump’s presidency is ending as it began; with a threat to America’s democratic systems incubated on US technology platforms. In 2016, the threat was external: a disinformation campaign originating in Russia and spread through social posts. In 2020, the disinformation was from inside the White House. Mr Trump used his vast social media presence to lend credibility to lies about the legitimacy of the election — inflaming his supporters into violent action.
The blood spilled on the floor of the Capitol was proof that words have consequences. It brought an end to the debate about whether social media had adequately protected democracy. They had not. Social media companies need a new model for preventing abuses of power via political speech.
But while the rest of the world has spent the past five years enacting laws and frameworks to counter disinformation, almost nothing has changed in the US. With America’s experiment in ungoverned digital speech ending in disaster, Joe Biden’s incoming administration should borrow from Europe to stem a homegrown crisis.
“We don’t want to end up like Germany,” used to be a lament of tech executives who saw Europe as a vortex of poor regulation. However, it is clear that Europe spent the Trump years learning from speech regulation mistakes, while America’s lack of progress has led, somewhat ironically, to mass censorship. The attempted Capitol coup prompted a wholesale social media ban for Mr Trump — from Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.
Social media companies’ mistake has been to assume that unregulated speech from powerful people is a hallmark of democracy rather than a threat to it.
In 2015, the Trump campaign released a video calling for a “total and complete shut down of Muslims” entering the US. Although it was in clear violation of Facebook’s hate speech policies, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg decided to leave the video up, with the justification that the speech of a leading candidate was “newsworthy”.
Subsequent reports noted that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice-president of global public policy and former official in the administration of president George W Bush, had told Mr Zuckerberg “don’t poke the bear”.
Facebook’s tolerance of Mr Trump’s incendiary posts attracted censure from its advertisers, employees and, notably, a civil rights audit that the company itself commissioned. Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg noted: “In the auditors’ view, the emphasis we’ve placed on free expression has not been adequately balanced by the critical value of non-discrimination.”
Platforms allow greater leeway for elected politicians than they do for ordinary citizens — which makes little sense if their aim is to enhance democracy. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of communications and former UK deputy prime minister, justified the approach in 2019: “Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say? I don’t believe it would.”
The challenge for Facebook, Twitter, and others, is to get beyond acting as “binary” unaccountable censors. One way the UK and Europe address this problem is through systemic assessments of the risk of harm. Under the EU’s proposed Digital Services Act, there is no requirement for platforms to monitor speech, but there is an obligation to conduct risk assessments of their content moderation systems, recommendation algorithms and advertising platforms. These have to take into account foreseeable negative effects on civic discourse and electoral processes.
Penalties for lying, fraud or even manipulation via social media already exist in relation to advertising and financial markets. In 2018, Elon Musk, chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla and another prolific Twitter user, ran afoul of the US Securities and Exchange Commission by tweeting that he had secured funding to take the company private at $420 a share. An ensuing fine of $40m and an agreement to relinquish the chairmanship, were widely viewed as lenient.
It took a long time for foreign intervention in the 2016 US election to be examined by the FBI and others. With manoeuvring for the 2024 presidential race already under way, and the stakes higher than at any time in modern history, platforms will have to move more decisively now. It is time for the US to relinquish its distaste for European regulations and adopt the practices and frameworks in full.