Capitol riot brings focus on social media, internet

The Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol has underscored the massive power of social media and the internet and the need to scrutinize these evolving modes of communication.

Twitter and Facebook have banned former President Trump from posting on their networks. Yet, the threat of future political violence hovers in cyberspace; online extremists are utilizing private groups and encrypted messaging applications to spew their venom.

Former President Trump is not the only public figure to feel the impact of self-policing by Twitter and Facebook. As Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times wrote last week, Sarah Huckabee Sanders has complained that she “lost 50K-plus followers” last week. Goldberg noted that Sanders protested on Twitter about “radical left” censorship. Sanders has been frequently mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for governor of Arkansas in 2022. She wrote “This is not China, this is the United States of America, and we are a free country.”

As Goldberg pointed out, Twitter and Facebook’s ban of Trump “is pretty much the opposite of what happens in China; it would be inconceivable for the Chinese social media giant Weibo to block President Xi Jinping. Trump’s social media exile represents, in some ways, a libertarian dream of a wholly privatized public square, in which corporations, not government, get to define the bounds of permissible speech.”

Goldberg’s point is telling. The First Amendment does not afford protection to citizens, or even former President Trump, over rules set by Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. These are private entities that may set their own rules and standards. The fact that social media giants may be manipulated by extremists, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists underscores the great obligations that these information behemoths have to monitor and police their networks.

The Anti-Defamation League recently reported, “Since the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, some technology companies have taken additional steps to crack down on the dissemination of hate and violent conspiracy theories. This includes bans on many of Donald Trump’s social media accounts, and Shopify ceasing its sale of merchandise from the Trump Organization. However, many tech companies continue to play a significant role in spreading hate and conspiracies that were on full display in the shocking violence at the U.S. Capitol.”

As the ADL explained, merchandise promoting QAnon, Proud Boys, III% and Oath Keeper, all of which are extremist movements, is still available on the internet. 

The public duty that Facebook, Twitter, Apple and other social media platforms owe the public to use due care in promoting content is readily apparent. While, at this time, internet sites and social media platforms are largely insulated from civil liability for harm to others, they wield tremendous power in today’s marketplaces of ideas and merchandise. Such vast powers merit serious responsibility.

Subsequent to the Capitol insurrection, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms suspended thousands of accounts related to the dismal events of Jan. 6. Significantly, Twitter, Google, Apple and Amazon banned the Parler social media application from their sites. 

Parler had been a favorite social media application for conservatives, white supremacists and many Trump supporters. Wired magazine reported that Parler went offline at 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 10 and filed suit against Amazon on Jan. 11. Parler’s lawsuit complains that Amazon breached its contract and violated antitrust laws in acting against it.

Amazon is vigorously defending its right to police Parler. Amazon’s court filing said that it notified Parler repeatedly that its content violated their agreement. Before taking it offline, Amazon sent Parler a letter that mentioned 98 examples of Parler posts that “clearly encourage and incite violence,” USA Today reported.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook told Chris Wallace of Fox News that Apple doesn’t “consider that free speech and incitement to violence have an intersection. We obviously don’t control what’s on the internet. But we’ve never viewed that our platform should be a simple replication of the internet. We have rules and regulations, and we just ask that people abide by these.”

Cook is absolutely right. Apple, Amazon, and other internet and social media platforms must regulate their content. That regulation should be in the public interest. At a minimum, internet and social media companies should set standards that do not threaten the public interest. The most vital interest that must be protected is the preservation of our democracy. That is a lesson we must ponder in the aftermath of the revolt on the Capitol.

A version of this editorial appeared in the Jan. 21 edition of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston and is reprinted with permission.

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