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Opinion: Trump's social media ban raises a question — what are the rules and who enforces them?

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 1/16/2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board
a close up of a logo: An illuminated smartphone screen shows a closeup of the Twitter app icon. Twitter and Facebook have banned President Donald Trump from using the social media sites until further notice. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS) © Provided by The LA Times An illuminated smartphone screen shows a closeup of the Twitter app icon. Twitter and Facebook have banned President Donald Trump from using the social media sites until further notice. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The United States and the world in general are in an unprecedented place when it comes to basic issues of free speech. The emergence of Facebook and Twitter as mass purveyors of speech — and the related emergence of a “cancel culture” in which people and groups try to shut down those with views they find offensive — has created a complicated, unsettling array of issues. It’s now close to inevitable that some governments worldwide will respond to the question of whether the private sector — especially giant tech firms based in California — gets to decide what speech is acceptable and what is not.

Three recent cases raise basic free speech issues.

  • Facebook and Twitter removed President Donald Trump’s accounts from their global platforms in recent weeks after concluding that he was attempting to foment violence by his supporters over his false claim that he was cheated out of re-election. He brought that on himself. Yet the social networks did nothing in response to similar incendiary communications by politicians in Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Brazil that led to “lynchings, pogroms, extrajudicial killings or ethnic cleansing,” as the Los Angeles Times reported.

    The leaders of Germany, Mexico and Australia raised another concern as well: They said a decision to shut off an elected official’s prime means of communicating with a nation should be made by a government, not a CEO. This is a fair point — but it is hard to see the irresponsible Trump as a victim.

  • Simon & Schuster canceled its contract with Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, last week for a book about alleged Silicon Valley tyranny after Hawley encouraged the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building by backing Trump’s uncorroborated claims of a stolen election. Hawley called this “a direct assault on the First Amendment” by a “woke mob” determined to shut down voices it didn’t like. Hardly. It was a private company deciding it didn’t want to associate with someone who had discredited himself. Hawley can self-publish and distribute his book easily without Simon & Schuster’s help.
  • Facebook on Monday banned former libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul from managing his page within hours after he posted a bland column criticizing Facebook and Twitter for banning Trump. The former Texas congressman was told the action was taken because of his page “repeatedly going against our community standards” — a claim made without supporting examples. Facebook later changed its mind and insisted it had made an innocent mistake. But Facebook’s years of arbitrary decisions on what and what not to allow make that hard to swallow. It must be clearer.

Drawing a line at incitement of violence is easy, and essential. Deciding what else goes too far will be more difficult, but social media giants have had problems for years with users complaining of abuse, harassment and threats. They’ve known this day was coming. In plain language, Facebook and Twitter need to explain what is and isn’t acceptable for posting. Increasingly, they are being considered for greater government regulation à la utility companies. That almost seems inevitable. Ultimately, Donald Trump’s most lasting legacy may be his role in the overdue reckoning of social media sites.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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