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The Ethics of Censorship: Is it Wrong to Ban Politicians from Social Media?

Big Tech bosses were forced into making the decision to ban Trump’s social media accounts, following the storming on the US Capitol on the 6th January 2021. The attack placed a gruesome bookend on Trump’s tenure and symbolised the violent polarity of US politics.  A rational leader would have immediately denounced the insurrectionists as thuggish criminals and called for their immediate arrest. However, Trump’s reaction functioned more as a love letter, only serving to fan the flames of unrest further. Despite the fact that he called for the criminals to stand down, he also labelled them as “patriots” and declared his admiration for them in a series of tweets and video messages. This offers a stark contrast to his tweets in response to the Black Lives Matter protests – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” springs to mind particularly. After January 6th, he clearly used social media to paint the white supremacist attackers as moral and therefore ran the risk of inciting further violence. This violated the guidelines of the major social media platforms. The ability of these unelected CEOs to remove the most powerful man in the West from their platforms raises questions about whether they are too powerful.

Over the course of the week following the attack, social media bosses acted unilaterally and banned Trump from their platforms. He was initially removed from Twitter, then Facebook and Snapchat. Some companies, such as YouTube, Reddit and TikTok, may have delayed their response but have introduced new restrictions surrounding posts in support of the actions of the president. In a rare interview, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the ban was the “right decision” but that it sets a dangerous precedent.  

Many on the right disputed the ethics behind the ban, but agreed with Dorsey’s negative sentiment towards involving himself in political debates. They argued that the ban was an example of the ease at which Big Tech is able to flex its political muscles and launch an attack on free speech. Some proponents of this argument, such as Trump Jr, reacted in typically irrational and sensationalist fashion. More disturbingly, right wing foghorn Glenn Beck compared the Trump ban and other Big Tech crackdowns to “the Germans with the Jews behind the wall. They would put them in the ghetto. Well, this is the digital ghetto.”

However, beneath all the conspiracy and hysteria lies a kernel of truth. Unelected bosses have too much scope to influence the political landscape within the current framework of the law. More sensible figures such as Angela Merkel – with considerably less admiration of Trump than others – have described the situation as “problematic”.  Social media platforms are able to dodge legal responsibility for the content published on their sites under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This piece of legislation allows platforms to turn a blind eye to the abuse and depravity under the guise of protecting First Amendment rights.

It is important to recognise that holding the views that the Trump ban was right and that Big Tech is too powerful are not incompatible with each other. This was emphasised by executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Both sides of the political aisle are unified in the belief that the current situation is untenable. With the right arguing that platforms should intervene less in the debate – this has led to new media such as racist cesspit Parlez springing up – and the left suggesting more needs to be done to curb the spread of abusive speech. I am more inclined to agree with the latter, however, the decisions should be taken out of the hands of Tech bosses. The growth of media platforms has outgrown the existing legal framework and new legislation must be introduced. This should be accompanied with more wide ranging educational and training programmes.

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