France criticises 'digital oligarchy' after Twitter, Facebook shut out Trump
France and Germany have criticised social platforms like Twitter and Facebook after they closed down accounts used by US President Donald Trump, accused of sending messages that could incite violence.
Prompted by fears of “further incitement of violence” after last week’s attack on the US Capitol building, partly blamed on the US president, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have all banned accounts associated with the American leader.
Their decision has sparked widespread consternation.
“The regulation of digital giants cannot be done by the digital oligarchy itself,” French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told France Inter radio on Monday, arguing that the responsibility "fell to the state" and that the technology companies themselves were "one of the threats" to democracy.
Meanwhile Junior Minister for European Union Affairs, Clement Beaune, told Bloomberg TV he was “shocked” to see a private company make such an important decision.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel described the Twitter ban as “problematic”, saying it was up to lawmakers to set the rules governing free speech, not private technology companies.
“The chancellor considers it problematic that the accounts of the US president have been permanently blocked,” her chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said during a press briefing in Berlin on Monday.
"It is possible to intervene in the freedom of expression, but in accordance with limits defined by the legislator, and not through a decision by company management," he added.
Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny took to Twitter to denounce what he termed "an unacceptable act of censorship" based on "emotion and personal political preferences".
A dogma has collapsed.— Thierry Breton (@ThierryBreton) January 10, 2021
Platforms no longer hide their responsibility by arguing that they merely provide hosting services.
Capitol Hill is the 9/11 moment of social media.
Op-ed @POLITICO👇https://t.co/tezIQ0WocY pic.twitter.com/uI2BprTRVy
US internet giants have often been accused of exerting too much power over social media, and many governments have called for them to face more regulation.
European commissioner Thierry Breton, who has introduced two EU proposals that would place more restraints on digital giants, described Twitter's decision as a total break from the past, calling it "the 9/11 moment of social media" in an op-ed published by Politico.
The EU is keen to push back against the growing influence of big tech companies and is drafting regulations that could allow the bloc to split up platforms if they fail to comply with the rules.
But some commentators have pointed to contradictions in the French and German positions.
“There’s something a bit surprising about Merkel’s reaction and those in France over the last few days,” said Damien Leloup, a journalist specialising in social media at Le Monde daily.
“We say to social media platforms ‘what right do you have to cut off the US president’s account over hate speech?’ But a few months ago, following the murder of Samuel Paty, we asked these very same social media networks to be much more proactive regarding calls and messages inciting violence," he told RFI.
“It’s not an easy equation for these platforms to solve.”
Digital law specialist Florence G'sell, who called Twitter's decision an "earthquake", detailed a three-part plan on the part of the EU which she said "could be of great interest to the Americans".
The EU aims to set up a procedure for implementing moderation decisions, a way of contesting these decisions and the possibility of resolving disputes through a third party, she told AFP, stressing that legislation was needed on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I think the platforms are ready to cooperate. But we mustn't be naive: there are enormous financial stakes. They have greatly profited from the polarisation."
Risk of future violence
Twitter and Facebook have both indefinitely suspended the accounts of Donald Trump, who has refused to accept the result of the 3 November election and spread unfounded theories that the vote was rigged.
Both platforms referred to the risk of future violence, particularly before Joe Biden's inauguration on 20 January, to justify their decisions.
Twitter said it had also considered the fact that plans for more armed protests have been proliferating on and off the service, including a proposed second attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on 17 January.
The social network was Trump's preferred megaphone, and his account had 88 million subscribers when it was suspended.
Twitter has also suspended “more than 70,000 accounts” linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory which claims Trump is waging a secret war against a global liberal cult of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.
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