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Twitter censors ‘provocative’ Trump post, President hits back with order

By Sunetra Choudhury and Yashwant Raj, New Delhi/washington Dc
PUBLISHED ON MAY 30, 2020 12:02 AM IST

US President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting social media companies may be motivated by personal and not national concerns — in this case, a spat with Twitter — but does reflect a growing concern around the world over the role these companies play in disseminating information and shaping opinions, both akin to the role traditionally played by media firms, even while being legally protected from being sued for content.

This is especially ironic because the main source of revenue for such platforms is the same as that for media companies — advertising, which, in their case, is sharply targeted given the extent of information they have about their users.

Section 230 of a 1996 US federal law protects these platforms from being treated as “publishers” even while it gives them the powers to moderate or regulate content without any liability.

Trump’s ire, as mentioned in the executive order passed on Thursday, is that the “online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming our natural discourse”; “flagging content as inappropriate even though it does not violate any stated terms of service” ; and “deleting content and entire accounts with no warning”. The order targeted Twitter, which it said “selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias” and which “never seems to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet”.

The reference was to Twitter fact-checking two of Trump’s tweets about mail-in-ballots. But far from backing away, Twitter responded by flagging a post from the US President several hours later for violating its policy on glorifying violence.

Trump’s action struck a chord in India where social media platforms have been accused of bias and trying to behave like media companies without any of the accountability that entails.

Information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad warned that “the right to freedom of opinion must be respected by platform owners otherwise they themselves will be questioned by the people of stifling a contrary view”.

“What is happening in America is their concern; I have no comment to offer on that,” said Prasad. “As an IT minister, I can only say that India is a free, democratic country and we appreciate the role of social media in empowering people. However, these social media platform operators must follow certain well defined norms, not promote hatred, terrorism, secessionism and communal violence,” he added in an interview.

In the past, these platforms have been accused of bias. “Criticism is welcome but if only one type of criticism is allowed and the counter to it is shelved, then it is not fair. The social media platforms need to acknowledge that free, frank and responsible exchange regardless of political colour or ideology, is of essence in a democratic world and if there are grievances on that score that a platform is favourably disposed towards one and hostile against the other, then it is neither fair nor appreciated,” Prasad explained.

When asked if he was dissatisfied with Twitter’s response to his concerns, he said: “In some cases they have been responsive, in others they need to be more proactive.”

Internet freedom activist and founder of medianama, Nikhil Pahwa, said that governments, including India, will use what they can to control social media platforms. In a LinkedIn post, he wrote that since India was pushing for traceability of a message and proactive takedown of content, “this might lead to the minister saying his ministry is justified in proposing/demanding these amendments”.

Lawyer Prasanna S, who deals with privacy issues, said that the order sparked a debate about an “underlying principle of whether the platform companies should have as much censorial power — particularly when they have become an almost primary tool for exercise of political speech and political organising”.

Twitter India refused to comment on the matter, other than pointing to the company’s response to the executive order which said: “This is a reactionary and politicized approach to such a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.”

But it may not be as black and white as that. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said in response to Twitter’s actions that social media platforms cannot be an “arbiter of truth”. His comments came ahead of the executive order.

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