Social networks have only decided in recent months to start pulling the brake and labelling some of those messages as spreading misleading information. We saw the climax during the last Presidential elections in the United States with Trump’s continued refusal to concede defeat and acknowledge the truth. A crescendo of hatred reached its peak with his incendiary speech on January 6th, when Capitol Hill was due to certify the election of Joe Biden.
Donald Trump’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Twitch accounts have been suspended indefinitely or cancelled. Who took this decision? Mark Zuckerberg and the other ‘masters’ of the platforms. It was not an institution, a commission, or a neutral entity, but the owners of social media platforms and their managing directors.
The arbitrary nature of such decisions, based on breaches of these companies’ internal rules, is worrying. Leaving aside any judgement on his policies, Trump’s ban from social media platforms raises serious questions not only for the United States, whose constitution is based on the freedom of speech, but also, given the extraordinary role of social media networks in today’s society, for the European Union and its Member States.
The main issue is how to distinguish information, based on objective facts, from opinions, which by their nature are subjective, and above all how to determine who should have the power to decide what should be censured or not.
Talking about the role of social media in the organisation of pro-Trump protests, Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for Internal Market, described the attack on Capitol Hill as a turning point: a 9/11 moment for online platforms.
By blocking the US President’s accounts, social media platforms have for the first time recognised their responsibility and can no longer hide behind the empty justification of being a kind of ‘virtual pub’, a public square where any opinion, however potentially dangerous, can be freely expressed. Indeed, the events in Washington are a demonstration of the profound effect of social media on the foundations of liberal-democratic systems, as the Cambridge Analytica and Brexit affairs had already proven.
According to some, the ‘horse has already bolted’ and any legislative intervention will be late and ineffective in regulating the digital Far West. The owners of social networks have built an oligarchy based exclusively on their ‘authority’, their exceptional market strength, and their concentration of power.
But something is beginning to move. Last December, the European Union presented the Digital Services Act, a legislative proposal aimed at setting clear and precise rules for online platforms that have now become the unique holders of absolute truths and the guardians of public debates.
The European Digital Service Act is based on a simple premise: what is illegal offline should also be illegal online. It will ensure greater fairness by imposing online the same rules that we currently apply only to traditional businesses. I am referring not only to hate speech or defamation but also to child pornography, international terrorist networks, market abuse, and the right to privacy. The new EU regulation will have to clarify what content should be removed and what penalties should be applied, eliminating the uncertainty caused by leaving such issues at the discretion of digital platforms. The Regulation will establish a transparent and predictable regulatory framework with all the necessary checks and balances that we require for all types of public decisions.
Europe has taken the first step and, as it has already proven in the fields of privacy and copyright, it will be able to influence national and supranational rules. Unlike in previous years, this time we will also have the opportunity to discuss it with our global partners in order to define together the common rules that will shape the public space of tomorrow. On the other side of the Atlantic, President Biden can be a close and strong interlocutor. Supporting the Union on this issue is crucial and Italy, which leads the G20 this year, has a great opportunity to play a leading role.
Written by Giuliano Pisapia MEP
- twitter @giulianopisapia
Giuliano Pisapia is a Member of the European Parliament | Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (Italy). He is the Vice-President of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament. He is the former mayor of Milan, and a former member of the Italian Parliament.