In the days following the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6, Donald Trump’s social media account was banned on several platforms, most notably Facebook and Twitter. Many people had been clamoring for the former US President’s social media ban during the past several months, angered by his incessant claims that the 2020 US presidential election was a fraud. However, the removal of Trump’s accounts poses the larger question regarding the vague boundaries of social media censorship. There are no clear rules about what these social media companies can do, and without regulation, companies could easily start abusing their power. Yet platforms definitely have a responsibility to take action when crimes are fueled by social media, which is why they should be allowed to censor material, but only after a direct link to violence has been established. Trying to restrict users beyond that threshold would inevitably lead to infringement on users’ rights to freedom of speech.
Though some may disagree with the idea of any social media censorship, Trump’s actions clearly demonstrate why it is necessary. He used social media as a tool to spread incendiary ideas, resulting in real consequences: five deaths and dozens of injuries at the Capitol riot. This should serve as a wake-up call for companies like Twitter, and some guidelines are necessary. So where do companies draw the line, especially when it comes to issues like Trump’s spread of misinformation? It is difficult to say that those lies led to violence, and taking down all lies would be too oppressive. Even proving that someone is lying can be hard in controversial issues. Therefore, material that does not lead straight to violence, such as Trump’s lies about election fraud, should not be censored at all. On the other hand, posts that link directly to violence must be taken down and companies should look out for similar posts in the future—even if they were not able to prevent damage the first time, companies will be able to stop further instances.
Another reason Trump’s accounts were so controversial was that he had an enormous follower base, and his social media posts were the best way for him to deliver public messages. There are likely thousands of accounts similar to Trump’s that go unnoticed because they have little effect. However, social media companies cannot make exceptions based on influence. Inflammatory rhetoric is not forgivable simply because it is unlikely to be spread, and if smaller accounts get together, they can bring about major consequences. Exempting those accounts is not giving freedom to more people; rather, it is a discriminatory practice that undermines any progress made. Social media platforms should still focus more on larger accounts to conserve effort, but if they encounter smaller accounts that violate their policies, they must not be overlooked.
The permanent suspension of Trump’s accounts has also raised questions about censoring politicians outside of the United States. This is a more complex issue because different countries have different value systems, so something regarded as offensive in America may be completely normal in another country. For example, something seen as sexist in America could easily be considered fine in Saudi Arabia. Though it would be ideal to understand diverse cultures around the world, social media companies should ultimately stick to one set of guidelines without allowing any special exemptions. Even if this Americanizes cultural values all over the world, it saves companies from the headache of trying to differentiate between hate speech and strange customs. The internet transcends country borders, so a set of criteria that accommodates all systems of belief would be impossible to create.
All in all, the most important thing to understand is that no policy is perfect. Trying to protect people’s liberties means that not all offensive comments will be censored, and trying to catch every instance of hate speech will end up censoring completely innocent posts. Leaning too far on either side will produce an authoritarian system like China or a platform where hate speech is rife. Social media titans are responsible for drawing boundaries and maintaining a healthy balance between freedom and safety on their platform, and their significance in society grows as more people rely on social media to get information. They must carefully consider their duties to society and establish the best policies possible; otherwise, it is only a matter of time before more people are harmed due to social media.