When former U.S. President Donald Trump was suspended from Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Spotify, Twitch, Shopify, Stripe, Reddit, Tik-Tok, YouTube and Pinterest over his false and malicious statements as well as violent political rhetoric, it became a subject of debate as to whether social media platforms have the right to suspend or delete postings from political leaders considered to be inflammatory or whether such actions constitute a threat to freedom of expression. Supporters across the political spectrum in the U.S. interpreted it in different ways. To most Democrats, suspending Trump was correct in so far as his actions as the President of the United States of America put the democratic institutions of the country at risk. In other words, President Trump was being punished for inciting the Capitol riot after failing to win a second term during the 2020 presidential election. Republicans on the other hand Trump’s suspension was an attempt to cover up the alleged rigging of the said 2020 presidential election. To Democrats and some Republicans went further to argue that Trump’s actions were synonymous with that of a rebel who wanted to usurp power but failed because of the institutionalized nature of U.S. democracy. Die-heart Republicans and the majority of Trump supporters accused social media platforms of siding with Democrats to silence the messiah chosen to save his country from the fangs of injustice.
In a move similar to that in the U.S., Twitter deleted a tweet by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. The post had threatened to punish those responsible for recent attacks on electoral offices and police stations across Nigeria and referenced the country’s 1960s civil war that killed about 1 million people. Two days after deleting the tweet, the Nigerian government responded by indefinitely suspending Twitter from operating in the country in what Information Minister Lai Mohammed described as protecting Nigeria’s “corporate existence.” It is therefore difficult to say whether social media platforms have a right to suspend political leaders given that the internet also allows them to hurl abuse and insults at others — and even send death threats because the internet also enables anyone to take a courageous stand against such views and counter anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and other such ideologies of inequality.
The scenarios in the U.S. and Nigeria show that the line between freedom of expression and hate speech is quite thin. It also indicates the role that the internet can play in promoting the former and/or suppressing the latter.
According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Contrary to freedom of expression, hate speech symbolizes: “Any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race.”
The difficulty to differentiate the two has even become more apparent with the advent of social media. It is becoming increasingly difficult to say what is and what is not freedom of expression and hate speech. Not far from the scenarios in the U.S. and Nigeria, neo-Nazists and right-wing populists in Europe are exploiting it and using the social media space and “other forms of communication to weaponize public discourse for political gain with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatizes and dehumanizes minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called “other”. What is particularly disturbing is the fact that this is now common in both democratic and authoritarian systems. Arguably, combating hate, and promoting peaceful, inclusive, and just societies requires someone to take action and social media giants are increasingly doing so by either suspending or deleting accounts of persons irrespective of their political status who are considered to have violated their community standards.
However, this is a subject of controversy because freedom of expression to one person could mean hate speech to another and vice versa. This ambiguity is further worsened by what social media platforms may consider to be freedom of expression as opposed to hate speech and how their political beliefs can contribute to influencing their decisions. With the digital space seen as a platform that promotes both freedom of expression and hate speech, the question remains whether social media giants should have the power to decide who to and who not to suspend, especially in politically sensitive situations like those mentioned above. What is considered community standards by most social media giants is also subject to interpretation because there is no codified body of international law regulating their activities.
The U.S. and Nigerian scenarios have raised several questions amongst which is the right of social media platforms acting as accountability oversight boards, the need for social media firms to be regulated by a codified body of international law especially given the fact that their activities transcend national borders, whether or not politicians can exploit social media platforms to incite violence, what is considered freedom of expression, what constitutes hate speech if social media giants have the right to decide what should or should not be posted on their platforms, whether their community standards makes sense from a legal perspective and who should be held responsible in situations where theirs platform for reasons of political expediency.
With no solution in sight, it appears that the debate about social media giants should take centre stage in international relations since their role is becoming increasingly important in promoting freedom of expression and/or combating hate speech.
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