The decision of Facebook and Twitter to veto Donald Trump’s accounts after the assault on the Capitol is a success that should be applauded. At the same time, this belated reaction is the symbol of the disastrous management of digital platforms in terms of content control that intentionally destabilizes democracies. Subjected to a storm of criticism, the digital giants have gradually introduced some improvements. But these are totally insufficient, as the situation in the US shows. After spreading false news, insidiousness and polarizing messages bordering on hate speech without pause throughout his presidency, Trump used his social media accounts in recent weeks to convince his followers that in fact he has won the elections and a pro-communist conspiracy has stolen them.
The spread of lies and the incitement to subvert the official result has led to an assault on Congress. This is just the latest in a disturbing series of episodes that threaten democracies through social media.
Trump’s veto on Twitter was first for one day; on Friday night the account was permanently suspended. Facebook has decided to suspend its posts for two weeks, “until the peaceful transfer of power has been completed,” according to an announcement by founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The mogul explained that they have allowed Trump to use the platform for years because “the public has the right to the widest possible access to political speech, even if it is controversial.”
Naturally, the control of content is a very sensitive issue that concerns freedom of expression, which is precisely one of the pillars of democracy. For this reason, it is the public powers that must clearly and incisively mark the rules of the game for technology. The current legislative framework in the US is unsatisfactory. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996 exempts platforms from the rules that affect traditional media and substantially grants them self-regulatory power. This framework thought out a quarter of a century ago must be reformed. The platforms have become giants with extraordinary power to shape the convictions of citizens; they respond to an inevitable logic of maximizing income. Politics must intervene to improve regulation, establish transparency and accountability mechanisms.
The EU has taken a step in this direction with a Commission proposal that doubles the demands on platforms to control the content they publish and transparency, with very high penalties. It is a step in the right direction. The resistance of the platforms will be strong. But it is necessary to reform and advance.