Scrolling down the home page of one of my newspapers of choice the other day, I could only find one article not about Coronavirus. While one of the greatest challenges facing our world at the present, it is a public disservice to permit a single topic to dominate all media channels unless there is a topical angle. In this climate, it came as something of a welcome change to see the news channels lighting up on a different topic; social media vs The President.
I won’t rehash the commentary here, only to observe for those unfamiliar with the events that Twitter has hidden a tweet by President Donald Trump because it violated their rules about glorifying violence.
Sidestepping Trump’s rhetoric and wounded pose for a moment, and Twitter’s equally egregious attempts to claim the moral high ground in a game of who best protects freedom of expression, and a very interesting question about politics and speech emerges.
In countries whose constitutions are based on the Westminster system, a common legal immunity is enjoyed by members of the legislature known as parliamentary privilege. In the case of the United Kingdom, this involves protection against criminal or civil liability for statements made, or actions committed, in the course of legislative duties. More crudely put, politicians can essentially say whatever they like and not face the same legal consequences you or I would if we made the same statement.
However, there is a caveat to this general rule. The convention that certain words cannot be used nor can a member of the House imply another member is lying.
Much though I think it a shame ‘guttersnipe’ is deemed disorderly in Ireland or that New Zealand saw fit to censure a member for observing of an opponent that ‘his brains could revolve inside a peanut shell for a thousand years without touching the sides,’ the general premise is sound and both protects freedom of speech while enforcing a reasonable standard of behaviour among politicians.
For many, Twitter is simply trying to set a similar standard in the realm of social media. However, where I would argue this is different is that in the saga of ‘all the President’s tweets’ we don’t have a legislative body, democratically elected by the people, making the call. We have a private corporation picking and choosing when and where it will exercise its discretion. This is evident in that many tweets by the President in question would arguably fall into the camp of unparliamentary language and yet stand without censure.
While opponents of Trump will now likely clap their hands with glee and call for yet more masking of what they deem to be offensive language, any celebration of the noble house of Twitter ought to be halted because the heart of the problem is not the President’s tweets but the platform on which his language resides.
This is because the social media giants have become de facto channels of government communication, and this complicates the conversation and makes it problematic for a company like Twitter to simply shelter under Section 230 and demand immunity.
This is because, in the case of the US, when the Communications Decency Act declared:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
It was 1996 and only a futurist would have predicted the dominance social media would hold over the channels of communication. Furthermore, if politicians are going to post on social media and expect the same rules of parliamentary privilege to apply, then a social media platform ought to be held accountable by more than its arbitrary terms of service. It should be accountable to the elected representatives of the people and follow the rules established by the legislature.
For those who hate and fear their politicians in equal measure, this will sound as the death knell of free speech. But I would argue that is one of the benefits of a democratically elected governing body, there is the ability to vote them out of power. The problem with the centralised social media giants is you can’t do that, leaving the only solution to decentralise their power and instead vest it in the people.