Why social media platforms banning Trump won’t stop — or even slow down — his cause


Bronwyn Carlson, Macquarie University

Last week Twitter permanently suspended US President Donald Trump in the wake of his supporters’ violent storming of Capitol Hill. Trump was also suspended from Facebook and Instagram indefinitely.

Heads quickly turned to the right-wing Twitter alternative Parler — which seemed to be a logical place of respite for the digitally de-throned president.

But Parler too was axed, as Amazon pulled its hosting services and Google and Apple removed it from their stores. The social network, which has since sued Amazon, is effectively shut down until it can secure a new host or force Amazon to restore its services.

These actions may seem like legitimate attempts by platforms to tackle Trump’s violence-fuelling rhetoric. The reality, however, is they will do little to truly disengage his supporters or deal with issues of violence and hate speech.

With an election vote count of 74,223,744 (46.9%), the magnitude of Trump’s following is clear. And since being banned from Twitter, he hasn’t shown any intention of backing down.

In his first appearance since the Capitol attack, Trump described the impeachment process as ‘a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics’.

Not budging

With more than 47,000 original tweets from Trump’s personal Twitter account (@realdonaldtrump) since 2009, one could argue he used the platform inordinately. There’s much speculation about what he might do now.

Tweeting via the official Twitter account for the president @POTUS, he said he might consider building his own platform. Twitter promptly removed this tweet. He also tweeted: “We will not be SILENCED!”.

This threat may come with some standing as Trump does have avenues to control various forms of media. In November, Axios reported he was considering launching his own right-wing media venture.

For his followers, the internet remains a “natural hunting ground” where they can continue gaining support through spreading racist and hateful sentiment.

The internet is also notoriously hard to police – it has no real borders, and features such as encryption enable anonymity. Laws differ from state to state and nation to nation; an act deemed illegal in one locale may be legal elsewhere.

It’s no surprise groups including fascists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and white supremacists were early and eager adopters of the internet. Back in 1998, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke wrote online:

I believe that the internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest.

As far as efforts to quash such extremism go, they’re usually too little, too late.

Take Stormfront, a neo-Nazi platform described as the web’s first major racial hate site. It was set up in 1995 by a former Klan state leader, and only removed from the open web 22 years later in 2017.




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The psychology of hate

Banning Trump from social media won’t necessarily silence him or his supporters. Esteemed British psychiatrist and broadcaster Raj Persaud sums it up well: “narcissists do not respond well to social exclusion”.

Others have highlighted the many options still available for Trump fans to congregate since Parler’s departure, which was used to communicate plans ahead of the siege at Capitol. Gab is one platform many Trump supporters have flocked to.

It’s important to remember hate speech, racism and violence predate the internet. Those who are predisposed to these ideologies will find a way to connect with others like them.

And censorship likely won’t change their beliefs, since extremist ideologies and conspiracies tend to be heavily spurred on by confirmation bias. This is when people interpret information in a way that reaffirms their existing beliefs.

When Twitter took action to limit QAnon content last year, some followers took this as confirmation of the conspiracy, which claims Satan-worshipping elites from within government, business and media are running a “deep state” against Trump.

Social media and white supremacy: a love story

The promotion of violence and hate speech on platforms isn’t new, nor is it restricted to relatively fringe sites such as Parler.

Queensland University of Technology Digital Media lecturer Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández describes online hate speech as “platformed racism”. This framing is critical, especially in the case of Trump and his followers.

It recognises social media has various algorithmic features which allow for the proliferation of racist content. It also captures the governance structures that tend to favour “free speech” over the safety of vulnerable communities online.

For instance, Matamoros-Fernández’s research found in Australia, platforms such as Facebook “favoured the offenders over Indigenous people” by tending to lean in favour of free speech.

Other research has found Indigenous social media users regularly witness and experience racism and sexism online. My own research has also revealed social media helps proliferate hate speech, including racism and other forms of violence.

On this front, tech companies are unlikely to take action on the scale required, since controversy is good for business. Simply, there’s no strong incentive for platforms to tackle the issues of hate speech and racism — not until not doing so negatively impacts profits.

After Facebook indefinitely banned Trump, its market value reportedly dropped by US$47.6 billion as of Wednesday, while Twitter’s dropped by US$3.5 billion.




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The need for a paradigm shift

When it comes to imagining a future with less hate, racism and violence, a key mistake is looking for solutions within the existing structure.

Today, online media is an integral part of the structure that governs society. So we look to it to solve our problems.

But banning Trump won’t silence him or the ideologies he peddles. It will not suppress hate speech or even reduce the capacity of individuals to incite violence.

Trump’s presidency will end in the coming days, but extremist groups and the broader movement they occupy will remain, both in real life and online.




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The Conversation


Bronwyn Carlson, Professor, Indigenous Studies, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No, Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others



Alex Brandon/AP

Katharine Gelber, The University of Queensland

The recent storming of the US Capitol has led a number of social media platforms to remove President Donald Trump’s account. In the case of Twitter, the ban is permanent. Others, like Facebook, have taken him offline until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

This has led to a flurry of commentary in the Australian media about “free speech”. Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has said he is “uncomfortable” with Twitter’s removal of Trump, while the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, has described it as “censorship”.

Meanwhile, MPs like Craig Kelly and George Christensen continue to ignore the evidence and promote misinformation about the nature of the violent, pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol.

A growing number of MPs are also reportedly calling for consistent and transparent rules to be applied by online platforms in a bid to combat hate speech and other types of harmful speech.

Some have conflated this effort with the restrictions on Trump’s social media usage, as though both of these issues reflect the same problem.

Much of this commentary is misguided, wrong and confusing. So let’s pull it apart a bit.

There is no free speech “right” to incite violence

There is no free speech argument in existence that suggests an incitement of lawlessness and violence is protected speech.

Quite to the contrary. Nineteenth century free speech proponent John Stuart Mill argued the sole reason one’s liberty may be interfered with (including restrictions on free speech) is “self-protection” — in other words, to protect people from harm or violence.




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Additionally, incitement to violence is a criminal offence in all liberal democratic orders. There is an obvious reason for this: violence is harmful. It harms those who are immediately targeted (five people died in the riots last week) and those who are intimidated as a result of the violence to take action or speak up against it.

It also harms the institutions of democracy themselves, which rely on elections rather than civil wars and a peaceful transfer of power.

To suggest taking action against speech that incites violence is “censoring” the speaker is completely misleading.

There is no free speech “right” to appear on a particular platform

There is also no free speech argument that guarantees any citizen the right to express their views on a specific platform.

It is ludicrous to suggest there is. If this “right” were to exist, it would mean any citizen could demand to have their opinions aired on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and, if refused, claim their free speech had been violated.




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What does exist is a general right to express oneself in public discourse, relatively free from regulation, as long as one’s speech does not harm others.

Trump still possesses this right. He has a podium in the West Wing designed for this specific purpose, which he can make use of at any time.

Were he to do so, the media would cover what he says, just as they covered his comments prior to, during and immediately after the riots. This included him telling the rioters that he loved them and that they were “very special”.

Trump told his supporters before the Capitol was overrun: ‘if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore’.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Does the fact he’s the president change this?

In many free speech arguments, political speech is accorded a higher level of protection than other forms of speech (such as commercial speech, for example). Does the fact this debate concerns the president of the United States change things?

No, it does not. There is no doubt Trump has been given considerable leeway in his public commentary prior to — and during the course of — his presidency. However, he has now crossed a line into stoking imminent lawlessness and violence.

This cannot be protected speech just because it is “political”. If this was the case, it would suggest the free speech of political elites can and should have no limits at all.

Yet, in all liberal democracies – even the United States which has the strongest free speech protection in the world – free speech has limits. These include the incitement of violence and crime.

Are social media platforms over-censoring?

The last decade or so has seen a vigorous debate over the attitudes and responses of social media platforms to harmful speech.

The big tech companies have staunchly resisted being asked to regulate speech, especially political speech, on their platforms. They have enjoyed the profits of their business model, while specific types of users – typically the marginalised – have borne the costs.

However, platforms have recently started to respond to demands and public pressure to address the harms of the speech they facilitate – from countering violent extremism to fake accounts, misinformation, revenge porn and hate speech.

They have developed community standards for content moderation that are publicly available. They release regular reports on their content moderation processes.

Facebook has even created an independent oversight board to arbitrate disputes over their decision making on content moderation.

They do not always do very well at this. One of the core problems is their desire to create algorithms and policies that are applicable universally across their global operations. But such a thing is impossible when it comes to free speech. Context matters in determining whether and under what circumstances speech can harm. This means they make mistakes.




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Where to now?

The calls by MPs Anne Webster and Sharon Claydon to address hate speech online are important. They are part of the broader push internationally to find ways to ensure the benefits of the internet can be enjoyed more equally, and that a person’s speech does not silence or harm others.

Arguments about harm are longstanding, and have been widely accepted globally as forming a legitimate basis for intervention.

But the suggestion Trump has been censored is simply wrong. It misleads the public into believing all “free speech” claims have equal merit. They do not.

We must work to ensure harmful speech is regulated in order to ensure broad participation in the public discourse that is essential to our lives — and to our democracy. Anything less is an abandonment of the principles and ethics of governance.The Conversation

Katharine Gelber, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Parler: what you need to know about the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative



Wikimedia

Audrey Courty, Griffith University

Amid claims of social media platforms stifling free speech, a new challenger called Parler is drawing attention for its anti-censorship stance.

Last week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 150 academics, writers and activists concerning perceived threats to the future of free speech.

The letter, signed by Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Gloria Steinem and J.K. Rowling, among others, reads:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

Debates surroundings free speech and censorship have taken centre stage in recent months. In May, Twitter started adding fact-check labels to tweets from Donald Trump.

More recently, Reddit permanently removed its largest community of Trump supporters.

In this climate, Parler presents itself as a “non-biased, free speech driven” alternative to Twitter. Here’s what you should know about the US-based startup.




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What is Parler?

Parler reports more than 1.5 million users and is growing in popularity, especially as Twitter and other social media giants crackdown on misinformation and violent content.

Parler appears similar to Twitter in its appearance and functions.
screenshot

Parler is very similar to Twitter in appearance and function, albeit clunkier. Like Twitter, Parler users can follow others and engage with public figures, news sources and other users.

Public posts are called “parleys” rather than “tweets” and can contain up to 1,000 characters.

Users can comment, ‘echo’ or ‘vote’ on parleys.
screenshot

Users can search for hashtags, make comments, “echo” posts (similar to a retweet) and “vote” (similar to a like) on posts. There’s also a direct private messaging feature, just like Twitter.

Given this likeness, what actually is unique about Parler?

Fringe views welcome?

Parler’s main selling point is its claim it embraces freedom of speech and has minimal moderation. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler”, founder John Matze explains.

This branding effort capitalises on allegations competitors such as Twitter and Facebook unfairly censor content and discriminate against right-wing political speech.

While other platforms often employ fact checkers, or third-party editorial boards, Parler claims to moderate content based on American Federal Communications Commission guidelines and Supreme Court rulings.

So if someone shared demonstrably false information on Parler, Matze said it would be up to other users to fact-check them “organically”.

And although Parler is still dwarfed by Twitter (330 million users) and Facebook (2.6 billion users) the platform’s anti-censorship stance continues to attract users turned off by the regulations of larger social media platforms.

When Twitter recently hid tweets from Trump for “glorifying violence”, this partly prompted the Trump campaign to consider moving to a platform such as Parler.

Far-right American political activist and conspiracy theorist Lara Loomer is among Parler’s most popular users.
screenshot

Matze also claims Parler protects users’ privacy by not tracking or sharing their data.

Is Parler really a free speech haven?

Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have denied they are silencing conservative voices, pointing to blanket policies against hate speech and content inciting violence.

Parler’s “free speech” has resulted in various American Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, promoting the platform.

Many conservative influencers such as Katie Hopkins, Lara Loomer and Alex Jones have sought refuge on Parler after being banned from other platforms.

Although it brands itself as a bipartisan safe space, Parler is mostly used by right-wing media, politicians and commentators.

Moreover, a closer look at its user agreement suggests it moderates content the same way as any platform, maybe even more.

The company states:

Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason.

Parler’s community guidelines prohibit a range of content including spam, terrorism, unsolicited ads, defamation, blackmail, bribery and criminal behaviour.

Although there are no explicit rules against hate speech, there are policies against “fighting words” and “threats of harm”. This includes “a threat of or advocating for violation against an individual or group”.

Parler CEO John Matze clarified the platform’s rules after banning users, presumably for breaking one or more of the listed rules.

There are rules against content that is obscene, sexual or “lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value”. For example, visuals of genitalia, female nipples, or faecal matter are barred from Parler.

Meanwhile, Twitter allows “consensually produced adult content” if its marked as “sensitive”. It also has no policy against the visual display of excrement.

As a private company, Parler can remove whatever content it wants. Some users have already been banned for breaking rules.

What’s more, in spite of claims it does not share user data, Parler’s privacy policy states data collected can be used for advertising and marketing.




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No marks of establishment

Given its limited user base, Parler has yet to become the “open town square” it aspires to be.

The platform is in its infancy and its user base is much less representative than larger social media platforms.

Despite Matze saying “left-leaning” users tied to the Black Lives Matter movement were joining Parler to challenge conservatives, Parler lacks the diverse audience needed for any real debate.

Upon joining the platform, Parler suggests following several politically conservative users.
screenshot

Matze also said he doesn’t want Parler to be an “echo chamber” for conservative voices. In fact, he is offering a US$20,000 “progressive bounty” for an openly liberal pundit with 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook to join.

Clearly, the platform has a long way to go before it bursts its conservative bubble.




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The Conversation


Audrey Courty, PhD candidate, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.