The first week of 2021 witnessed a pivotal moment in US politics. For the first time in its history, the seat of Congress was attacked by its own people. American citizens, egged on by their president, stormed Capitol Hill determined to take their legislators hostage and possibly even murder some of them. Why? Because they believed that their election was stolen, that the loss of their candidate was illegitimate and that the sanctity of their vote had been violated. Who made them believe that? President Donald Trump and his megaphones in the Republican Party, the media and social groups. And how did they do that? They did it through social media.
This was not the first instance of a political leader and his associates using social networks to spread lies to the masses. People in the third world are much too familiar with social media being a tool of hate. Even the social media companies knew, long before the Capitol riot, how dangerous their platforms were. Yet, they did not do anything because they did not care. Moderating content risks infringing on freedom of expression, they said. However, these concerns went out the door when it started affecting the US and the lives of the company bosses. Suddenly, no one was worried about curtailing free speech and President Donald Trump was first fact-checked and then banned from a number of platforms, including his favourite Twitter.
Yet, while the companies become stricter in the US, they continue to kowtow to “free speech” in the countries of Asia and Africa. After the de-platforming of Trump, many activists in India were hoping to see similar steps for some of their toxic politicians, but nothing happened. In Myanmar, there were hopes that anti-Rohingya content would be restricted; again, no such luck. To be fair, Facebook did start flagging some content in the aftermath of the military coup but it ultimately proved moot because the government there banned social media altogether. The argument raised still continues to be that of freedom of expression but freedom by whose standards?
These companies were born in the US, grew in the US and were shaped by inherently and intrinsically American values. When they expanded to other countries, they took these American values with them to societies that were not compatible with them. As a result, the corporations’ commitment to “free speech” has aided and abetted racism, bigotry, violence and an erosion of trust. But what they pretend not to understand is that freedom of expression is not a standalone right. Indeed, there is a higher degree of freedom in America but that is based on their unique social constructs. Other countries are different and hence, need different approaches. The showrunners of social media need to stop believing that what works in the US also works for the rest of the world because, as we saw at the very start of this year, it does not even work for the US. These sites banned Trump for a reason. So, why doesn’t that reason apply to other leaders in other states?
It sounds paradoxical. Claiming American standards should be implemented across the globe while asking for the rules that led to Donald Trump’s suspension to be enforced on others elsewhere too. But they are not. Facebook, Twitter and others determined the need to stop Trump from expressing on their platforms based on the situation he caused in America. These companies now need to do the same in other places. They need to judge the actions of a person or entity within the context they are based in. When operating in specific countries, these corporations need to localise themselves in those countries. They need to put guardrails in place and stop flaunting American values as an excuse.