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04 February 2021

When Twitter Becomes Sheriff of the Virtual Wild West

Looking at the suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account following his incitement to storm the American Capitol building, Thomas Schultz, Visiting Professor of International Law, analyses what happens when social media becomes a guardian of the freedom of speech.
 

On 8 January 2021, Donald Trump’s Twitter account was terminated. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, wielded the banhammer. Great? Well, the general reaction to this has mostly been, surprisingly, no.

The reaction has mostly been that it is yet more evidence that freedom of expression is ever more tightly muzzled, that Twitter is a public service that must guarantee a diversity of views, that big tech companies are abusing their power ever more and that they are bad anyway, and more generally, that the world is a dark and terrible place getting worse. 

This is not a surprising reaction in that it was difficult to predict. Core Trump supporters crying out is as normal as football rowdies hollering if their leader were forced to switch from chants and insults to nuance and complexity. The fact that media pundits (often lawyers, like me) uncritically repeat perspectives developed by others and lament the lack of proliferating regulation – as if more law, like more sun, is a cure-all – that too is regrettably normal. It is a surprising reaction because it does not seem to make much sense; there are numerous problems of Internet governance, but this is not one of them. 

On 8 January 2021, Donald Trump was still the American president, at the helm of a deeply torn and tormented country, threatening to go up in flames at the slightest provocation. The attacks on the Capitol had just occurred, fuelled by insidious rapid-fire 280-character thought fragments tossed off by the man-in-charge. Since January four years earlier, that Twitter account had been the vehicle for 200 A4-pages worth of insults, over 500 tweets marked as misinformation by Twitter itself, and innumerable lies told for power and for profit including a big boost of Birtherism (Barack Obama being a secret Muslim born abroad set on taking America down). An account that contributed to the killing by negligence of hundreds of thousands of people by making COVID mask wearing a sign of weakness rather than a symbol of solidarity, of responsibility to others. 

Yes, I think it is surprising to believe it was a dangerous idea to close that account in that situation, a Twitter account, the one communication instrument that so cleanly kills nuance and complexity, things so essential to politics and the modern world; an instrument so perfectly tailored to spread propaganda, yet never made for it.

But what lessons can be drawn from this?

A lesson about where power lies: Twitter stopped a man, and should have stopped him earlier, which no country could have in the same way. A lesson, also, that we should beware of the David and Goliath syndrome: the idea that they are big and we are small, so they are wrong and we are right. And a lesson that we lawyers shouldn’t, in the name of legal certainty, draw up rules so complicated that it takes scholars years to figure out what exactly they mean.