The Malta Independent 22 June 2021, Tuesday

Facebook and Twitter have no clothes

Owen Bonnici Friday, 11 June 2021, 07:06 Last update: about 11 days ago

Forget about Parliamentary democracy or the concept of checks and balances or the issue of the supremacy of the Constitution.  Forget about the writings about the separation of powers and about the age-old advice that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Forget about the wisdom of philosophers, political thinkers, Constitutional authors and statespersons.

We live in a world where the executives at the companies which own Facebook and Twitter effectively enjoy unfettered discretionary power to decide who is allowed to speak and whose voice is to be switched off and nobody seems to give a hoot about how bad, sad and completely unacceptable all this is.

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While democratic holders of political office have layers upon layers of Constitutional mechanisms cast upon them (as it should be) in order to make sure that the vires vested unto them by the application of the law is not abused, everyone is turning a blind eye about the big elephant in the room: the enormous and unmitigated right which the companies behind Facebook and Twitter have to play around with freedom of expression as they totally deem fit.

We live in a historic period of time where people expect that institutions subject themselves to greater scrutiny, such as judicial review.  I can bring about numerous examples of how local institutions were reformed in a way as to allow the opportunity of greater scrutiny on the decisions they take from time to time.  All this is right, correct and a massive step in the right direction.

And yet, we are happy having unelected bosses at multinational companies playing Ramses II, switching off posts of people without any democratic scrutiny.  We all remember how following the voting in the last Presidential election in the United States of America, twitter – which is owned by a US company – decided to block some of the posts of the outgoing President of the United States because of real fear that what the disgraced former President wanted to write could incite violence and lead to loss of life.

Now let me make it clear.  I completely condemn the actions of former President Donald Trump and also condemn unreservedly the use of words which lead to violence and possibly to loss of life.  Undoubtedly, the action taken by Twitter was a very difficult one to take by the company and I am sure that they did what they did with the best of intentions.  What makes everything more complicated is that objectively the action was a correct one and possibly saved more people from getting harmed unnecessarily.

But the hard fact remains that Twitter shut down the voice of the most powerful leader of  the democratic world at the touch of button and following decisions taken by unelected officials who are not answerable to anyone but their shareholders. That is something which we cannot and must not take lightly. 

One could argue that this was an extreme circumstance and an extreme measure which was needed to be taken during a period of extraordinary time. 

Wrong.  This is happening all the time even in the most harmless of cases.  Let me provide an example nearer to home.  Facebook only a few hours ago banned an innocuous satirical cartoon by Maltese artist George Mallia after, ironically, not getting a joke.  The cartoon portrayed a worried man thinking on whether COVID-19 was, after all, a scam.  The man was drawing an introspective reflection about his existence as a comic strip character. 

Mallia posted the cartoon on Facebook, only to find that it was removed from his page for spreading "false information about COVID-19 that could contribute to physical harm".

Imagine, for a moment, that Twitter and Facebook do not exist and that George Mallia, rather than posting the cartoon online, offered the same cartoon for publication on the news portal of the National Television station and was turned down for fear of spreading false information about COVID-19.  All hell would, undoubtedly, break loose if that were to happen in this imaginary world.  Probably the editor would be accused of unjust censorship and some people would go as far as asking for heads to roll!

So why are we turning a blind eye and applying a different metric with Twitter and Facebook when it is much, much worse?  It is worse because these are owned by foreign companies which are run by the rules of capitalism, not of democracy.  It is worse because their rights to switch off this and switch off that extend to all over the globe but their responsibility is severely limited by the laws of private international law.

Why do people expect the best progressive standards out of our editors and the decisions they take but are comfortably numb with regards to Twitter and Facebook of these worlds? 

With each day that passes, social media is fast becoming, by a large margin, the number one source of news for us Maltese and the world at large.

A study by number cruncher Vincent Marmara found that 72% of respondents said they follow links to news portals from their Facebook news feeds and only 42% directly visit online portals (as opposed to article links popping up on their Facebook feeds). TV news, once the mighty lion of the world of communications, is a distant second with some 54%.

So, to make it clear, with each day that passes, we are fast losing as a nation and as a European continent that which our forefathers worked so much for, after years of experience, to achieve in terms of the rules to be applied in order to achieve a balance between the right of freedom of expression and the responsibility for misuse of that freedom within a democratic context.

Best-selling writer Glenn Greenwald wrote that Facebook and Twitter are crossing a line far more dangerous than what they censor.

In reality, that is only one side of the very big problem.

 

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