Vincent Zakian, In-Depth Co-Editor
Following the storming of the Capitol Building by pro-Trump radicals on Jan. 6, protesting the results of the 2020 Presidential election, all of former President Donald Trump’s personal social media accounts were suspended after he refused to condemn the event. According to a statement from Twitter, the suspension of his account was to prevent “risk of further incitement of violence” from his account. Twitter also cited that Trump had been spreading misinformation from his account about the election results since they were released in November.
After the news of the protest initially broke, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, announced that Trump would be banned from Facebook and its associated sites at least until Jan. 20, when the transfer of power was completed and Joe Biden was officially sworn into office. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey stamped a permanent ban on Trump’s infamous account. It was a landmark moment in the technology industry, as companies censored one of the loudest and most polarizing voices in the world.
Being that he was the President of the United States, Trump’s ban is the most notable instance of censorship; however, it is not the only one. Politicians and leaders around the world, many with similar views to Trump, are facing potential bans from social media platforms. Brazilians have been calling for the ban of Jair Bolsonaro, a politician who also intends to fight recent election results, and has been accused of “repeatedly using social media to undermine democracy and incite violence,” according to The Guardian.
Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, was permanently banned from Twitter for “amplifying misinformation,” according to The Washington Post. Lindell spoke out against this year’s election results and is a known supporter of Trump. In interviews since his social media ban, Lindell has continued to claim that Biden’s now confirmed election was fraudulent.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his associates have people calling for similar actions. While Modi himself hasn’t been accused of anything directly, many members of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have allegedly spread “politically motivated hate speech.” However, the BJP has a strong relationship with Facebook, complicating the situation as Modi himself is friendly with Zuckerberg. This relationship, combined with the allegations of hate speech, has led to accusations of anti-Muslim bias against Facebook.
Now that censorship of political figures is a clear possibility, more people seem likely to call for the suspension or ban of a person in power’s account that the public feels is spreading misinformation or hate speech. Sam Cohen, ‘21, said, “I think this has to start a trend on social media of banning people who spread misinformation that can cause violence and hateful actions. Yes, I know the freedom of speech argument, but when people say things that cause people to hurt others, and in the case of the [C]apitol, breaking into a federal building while members of [C]ongress were in there, [they] should be banned.”
Cohen brings up the positives of censorship, but there are also negatives. Gregory Tuttle, a history teacher at Columbia High School, examined the history of censorship on the other side of the political spectrum. “Essentially, media censorship really starts in this country with the censorship of people on the left. These are abolitionists who aren’t allowed to print their material. These are people trying to start labor unions, and aren’t allowed to do that. This starts with labor unions who are trying to do strikes, and getting arrested and thrown in jail. This even has to do with Eugene Debs for being imprisoned for speaking out against World War One and then running for president from prison.”
Tuttle makes a point that the history of censorship in the United States appears to lean to one side of the political spectrum. And while it seems that the figureheads of the right wing are receiving calls for censorship, that phenomenon still lingers on the left. Tuttle continued, “Trump gets censored, [and] he’s a big figure, so we all see that. I still think it’s people like Black Lives Matter protestors and activists who are getting targeted more by Twitter and Facebook. I think maybe the problem is the algorithm. Algorithms create echo chambers. Echo chambers amplify everything. That amplification does lead to violence.”
While the bigger names getting calls for censorship often identify with the right side of the political spectrum, it is important to note that the left is taking a hit in the social media era as well. Their figureheads seem unlikely to face suspensions due to hate speech, but their supporters may not fully be given the same opportunities on the same platforms as their counterparts on the right.
Due to the extreme popularity of their sites, people like Dorsey and Zuckerberg carry an immense amount of power in regards to who is on their platforms. Whether or not they have done the right thing by banning Trump and Lindell is up for debate, but it is important they carefully examine who they are censoring and if it is the correct choice given the circumstances. The power to control the reach of politicians should not be taken lightly. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become increasingly more important in elections, and by extension, Dorsey and Zuckerberg could be changing the opinions of the electorate by silencing primarily right wing politicians, while simultaneously minimizing the reach of activists on the left.
If this balancing act tips one way, we could see a dystopian level anti-free speech world. If it tips the other way, we could see corrupt politicians who push hate speech be enabled to do so.
Designed by: Leo Preston