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Editorial: Trump’s Twitter exile begs question, what do we want online discourse to be?

The social media space has become an arena for public discourse, but how to keep that space sound has become a major issue.


Twitter and other social media platforms have recently suspended the accounts of U.S. President Donald Trump. The action came after the outgoing president refused to admit he lost the Nov. 3, 2020 presidential election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, and a mob of Trump sympathizers ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 this year. Trump’s accounts needed to be shut down due to the risk he would incite further violence, the social media firms said.


Trump has condemned the moves as a violation of freedom of expression. But that freedom comes with responsibility. The U.S. president bears much responsibility for crime-fomenting utterances that have done so much to harm the common good, and much of the American public believes his banishment from social media was justified.


The social media giants’ unilateral moves have been greeted with skepticism in Europe, however. Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stated recently that the “fundamental right” of free expression “can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators — not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms.”


In other words, Merkel holds that judging posts feeding disinformation, discrimination and other such ills should not be left to companies, but to society. Indeed, the European Union is moving to impose far more severe management responsibilities on social media firms by building rules making it obligatory for companies to quickly erase harmful internet posts.


In the United States, too, there is growing debate over whether current laws that, as a general rule, protect social media companies and their ilk from legal responsibility for harmful user-generated content should be revised. Japan as well is looking to revisit current rules exempting social media platforms from responsibility for slanderous speech posted by users.


However, a user’s follower numbers tend to increase in proportion to the extremism of their posts, which in turn swells the host platform’s ad revenues. Trump, who used his Twitter account to spew an unending stream of malignant commentary, had some 8.9 million followers, and used the service to supercharge his political power. And Twitter and other services let this flow go unstaunched for years.


Keio University Law School professor Tatsuhiko Yamamoto commented, “The social media companies bear a heavy social responsibility for their role in the public discourse space. They should make their processes for dealing with harmful posts transparent, and fulfill their duty to explain why a post has been deleted or account frozen.”


Each social media firm must of course strengthen their processes for dealing with destructive speech. However, the river of information that runs through their platforms every day is vast, and the companies alone will not be able to eliminate all the harmful posts polluting it on their own. It is essential for users, too, to be able to identify fake information. We need to broadly examine and debate exactly what we want the internet discussion space to be.

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