January 8, 2021, was a historic and sinister day. Twitter banned Trump on its platform after catapulting him to power and allowing him to misuse their platform on several occasions and post questionable tweets for many years. This action is delayed and incredibly hypocritical. It’s a well-known fact that Donald Trump might never have become president if not for Twitter. Kirsten Powers, a senior political analyst at CNN is reported to have stated that “Without Twitter, there would be no Donald Trump presidency.”
I believe that corrective action should have been taken long ago and should have been applied to several other accounts as well. However, the Internet is functioning like a lawless Banana Republic in which there are arbitrary rules, and no proper checks and balances. Its high time that we have debates to decide on uniform laws that police social media and decide how fact-checks, labels, suspensions, and bans should be enacted whenever the first violation occurs, and apply them equally and fairly to every violator. Otherwise, the feeling among some segments that they are unfairly targeted and restricted, will continue to grow.
Social Media platforms are as guilty as those who post misinformation on them if they decide to step in only selectively when it suits them. At other times, they choose to remain silent because they are raking in profits or they couldn’t care enough. So, as it stands now, they get to decide how long they will allow a user to be inciteful or spread fake news, who will be fact-checked and who will continue scot-free, and when a user will be fact-checked and when they won’t be.
They can decide to wake up one fine day in January, find a scapegoat, chop his head off and absolve themselves of all their culpability! For example, it’s incredible that China that is autocratic and has banned Twitter within its territory, is allowed to have mouthpieces on Twitter that spread misinformation. So are some terrorist organizations and questionable groups. They have not yet been banned.
If we don’t question what happened yesterday, the opaque policies and hidden algorithms of Tech companies will drive public discourse and perception. This is worrying because most of these companies are more or less monopolies and do not allow competition to thrive, and form cartels among themselves. Even more worrisome for India because they are foreign companies. Google decides what to show us in search results and what to hide, Facebook customizes the newsfeed for each person, and Twitter arbitrarily fact checks and bans. Worse still, there is absolutely “no privacy”. In addition to first-party, second-party, and third-party tracking, we even have fourth party cookies!! They know “everything” including things that we do not know about ourselves (thanks to AI). Right now, there is simply no way to rule out foreign interference in our elections, or ensure fairness in public debates, and transparency in internet searches. In the end, we will not even realize that we are being fooled and manipulated.
Besides, we cannot entirely dismiss the fact that anyone who decides to question these companies might get conveniently restricted or de-platformed. For instance, in a questionable move, Twitter temporarily suspended the account of Amul, a famous and iconic dairy cooperative in India, after they had posted an ad with the phrase “Exit the Dragon” during the conflict at the Indo-China border, in which 20 Indian soldiers were martyred in 2020. There was an outrage against this move because the ad did not violate free speech laws in India and the decision seemed unfair.
Who will ensure that internet companies will not be swayed if an enemy country, any terrorist organization, or criminals offer them millions in return? We need to sit up and think whether we are willing to allow foreign technology companies to become all-powerful and govern us. For example, the Google Play Store decided to drop the “Parler” app, which is the competition for Twitter. While it might have explanations for this, shouldn’t we allow some competition and have government oversight? A technology company that is a monopoly should not be allowed to determine the rules of free speech. These companies themselves have faced or are facing lawsuits for wrongdoing and causing harm to users in some countries. Therefore, it’s time to act before it’s too late and reconsider how we want to use social media, and how the government needs to step in and regulate it. For starters, we need to educate ourselves and others on these dangers. Twitter has banned Trump, but who will tame Twitter?