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Donald Trump's Twitter ban is no Chinese-style censorship

Ebbighausen Rodion Kommentarbild App
Rodion Ebbighausen
January 15, 2021

The schadenfreude in Beijing and among other authoritarian governments about Donald Trump's Twitter ban misses the point, argues DW's Rodion Ebbighausen.

A smartphone showing the Twitter logo against the background of the Chinese flag
In China, only one opinion matters — that of the Communist PartyImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/B. Zawrzel

In China and other authoritarian states, Twitter's permanent suspension of Trump's Twitter account confirmed a long-held belief that too much freedom of speech inevitably leads to disaster.  

Of course it's not that simple. We are all aware that there are limits to freedom and to freedom of speech. How a society identifies and defines those limits is what matters.

Everything which is not forbidden is allowed

In China, censorship is an ever-present threat. Anything that is not expressly approved by the Communist Party is problematic. When voicing an opinion could easily land you in jail, you choose your words carefully — as every journalist who has ever worked in an authoritarian state can confirm. The Communist Party alone decides what is acceptable and what isn't. It alone defines the boundaries of the acceptable and it doesn't have to explain itself to anyone. The general public is treated like a minor that the party has to protect from itself. 

DW's Rodion Ebbighausen
DW's Rodion EbbighausenImage: DW

Meanwhile, in a liberal democracy, everything is allowed. Every ban must be justified. Introducing bans and justifying why they are necessary is a process that involves the general public, politicians, companies, unions and churches — and no one need fear that giving their two cents could lead to reprisals. The upshot of the process is an ever-evolving consensus on the definition of freedom of speech and its limits.

Trump's Twitter ban 

In the US, three social media giants — Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — have now decided to clamp down on Trump's freedom of speech. 

It's important to point out that these are not human rights organizations, even if they like to see themselves as champions of freedom of expression and participatory democracy. They are private companies. Businesses that in Twitter's case, make a lot of money off 280 characters, advertising and big data. 

So they have every right to ban a user. Just as no one can demand to be published in The New York Times or The Washington Post, no one can demand a social media account. Suspending Trump's account is a legitimate contribution to the ongoing public debate on the limits of freedom of speech.

The crucial difference

It's not even as if Trump has been silenced. He may have been kicked off Twitter, but news networks and agencies all over the world continue to report on his latest activities and statements. That's not an opportunity afforded to Chinese dissidents

And that's the crucial difference between China and the US. In China only one opinion is tolerated — the Communist Party's opinion. There is no enforced conformity in the US, as there is in China. Diversity of opinion is allowed. That might sometimes get chaotic, but if the general public is to be respected — and its freedom of speech — there is no viable alternative.

This has been translated from German.

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