January has already seen an unprecedented number of ‘unprecedented’ events. First, a riot on the US Capitol building, the seat of US democracy, incited by a delusional President Donald Trump. In response, the biggest tech platforms – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – have taken the dramatic step of removing the president’s personal accounts, as well as those linked with his political campaigns. This move has been met with approval and disgust in equal measure, split down the usual partisan lines.
Although corporate responsibility had been a widely accepted ideal throughout the pre-Internet era, we are seeing growing debate and consternation about what it actually means in the 21st century. The move to ban Trump’s social media accounts was in many ways shocking and has sparked substantial debate around censorship and tech monopolies. But, it shouldn’t. This is simply an exercise in corporate responsibility, albeit a delayed one.
What is there to actually debate about? Today’s tech Goliaths are private companies, accountable to shareholders and responsible for their own reputations. If something is deemed a risk to that reputation, they are within their rights to remove it from their platform (as per their terms and conditions).
Looking at the bigger picture, companies also have a sense of social corporate responsibility. This is true across many traditional industries. Take, for example, a mining company working in the extractive industry. As this company has great power to extract valuable resources from the earth, thus benefiting society, it takes upon itself the responsibly to reduce pollution and environmental harm, thus preserving the planet for future generations.
The same is true for Twitter, Facebook et al: while their platforms provide a major service to society by contributing to never-before-seen levels of knowledge proliferation and debate, they also have the responsibility to ensure that their platforms are not used to spread hate, incite violence, or organise terrorist activity.
Social media platforms already monitor and take action against potentially dangerous rhetoric from international terrorists or organised crime groups. That they have, this time, taken action against the president of the United states should cause no controversy. Trump used these platforms to preach hate, spread misinformation and incite violence, a combination that spilled over into an insurrectionist coup on the Capitol, resulting in the deaths of what is now at least seven people (including the recent suicides of one of the suspected insurrectionists and a police officer who responded to the attack). In this regard, the removal of the president from these platforms is completely justified.
The real question, then, is: what took so long? For years, Trump repeatedly violated Twitter’s usage policy, with the company bending over backwards to accommodate him. He has been given exceptions and was catered to at every opportunity. One could argue that such a delay in action contributed to the events at the Capitol. Without social media, Trump’s election lies could not have been so easily spread, people would not have been so easily radicalised, and the raid on the Capitol would not have been organised so quickly. For many, the action taken against Trump is too little, too late.
So why now? It is likely that the nearing change of government is what emboldened tech companies to act, with fear of repercussion from the sitting executive removed from the table. On top of this, looming regulatory action from Democratic legislators outraged at Trump’s behaviour, as well as the lack of big tech action against it, is also certain to have played a part.
Tech companies have taken the opportunity to act independently before their hand is forced by an emboldened, incoming Democratic administration – one which will soon control all three levers of political power. It appears these companies adopted the strategy of jumping before being pushed, with the decision to ban Trump and his acolytes representing an attempt to ensure the future existence of their businesses.
While the decision to ban Trump is better late than never, it also strikes as cowardice and opportunism, as the companies only took action as the tides of public and political opinion swung in their favour. Yes, there is some relief that Big Tech is finally stepping up to the plate, but these companies must be ahead of the game in the future.
It is not enough to simply act out of self-preservation or when public pressure grows too strong. If social media companies are to play a leading role in the modern world, they must be more proactive in taking measures to ensure that the events witnessed since the election can never happen again.