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Social media: Simply pulling the plug won't work

January 11, 2021

Facebook and Twitter have suspended Donald Trump's accounts. This is a remarkable action from companies scrambling to get themselves off the hook. We can't let them, says DW's Editor-in-Chief Manuela Kasper-Claridge.

Twitter screenshot Donald Trump
Image: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

US President Donald Trump, the Goliath of social media, has been felled — although not by a small competitor. Rather, it was other giants: Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon that had enough. They have made it clear that they decide who can express themselves on their platform and how, by culling perhaps their most famous user.

The 88 million Twitter followers of the outgoing US President and 35 million fans on Facebook will no longer find the statements, at times racist and dangerous, of @realDonaldTrump on these platforms. The president has been shut out.

Donald Trump used his accounts as a weapon against dissenters. Hate speech and fake news were his trademarks. What consequences his tweets could have was seen during the storming of the Capitol in Washington.

Finally, there is peace, many say, and I too let out a sigh of relief. But only very briefly. Because if you want freedom of speech, you have to put up with freedom of speech. It makes me nervous that a small group of people can decide to slam the door shut on the world's most influential communication platforms.

Let's be clear: We're not talking about hate speech or fake news. They have to be identified and labeled or deleted. That is the task of the platform operators, admittedly a task they have reluctantly started to take to in recent months.

Manuela Kasper-Claridge
DW Editor-in-Chief Manuela Kasper-ClaridgeImage: DW/R. Oberhammer

It was May when Twitter first slapped a warning on two of the president's tweets. From then on, more and more posts were provided with warnings or even deleted. Everyone could now see how insubstantial and dangerous some of Donald Trump's statements were. That was a good thing.

But shutting his account down now is too easy. The platform operators are shirking their responsibility. Even without Donald Trump, millions upon millions of pieces of fake news, hate speech and propaganda circulate on their platforms. In view of this, Twitter, Facebook and others must finally fulfill their social obligation: They must consistently delete and, where necessary, classify and identify fake reports.

Let's also not forget that these social networks are an important tool for expressing opinions, especially in countries with limited freedom of the press. However, it is not democratic or a sign of plurality when a few company bosses, who are ultimately only responsible to their shareholders, dominate markets and use their power to decide on freedom of expression.

It is time to take this de facto power of Facebook, Twitter and search engines like Google seriously and regulate them democratically and efficiently. They, too, must be held accountable.

Germany has taken the first steps in this direction. On Jan 1, 2018, the so-called "Network Enforcement Act" (NetzDG) came into force. According to this law, social networks are obliged to combat agitation and fake news.

The law was welcomed by the EU Commission. Since then, Facebook and other social networks in Germany have had to employ hundreds of "content moderators" to monitor entries and delete them if necessary.

In view of the abundance of entries, this is certainly only a start, but at least it's a start.

Simply pulling the plug, as it was done with Donald Trump's accounts, is definitely not the right way to go. It simply allows the tech Goliaths to shy away from their responsibility.