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Explainer: Before the Trump-Facebook ruling: This is how social media sites deal with world leaders

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U.S. President Donald Trump taps a cell phone screen in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, United States on June 18, 2020. REUTERS / Leah Millis

May (Reuters) – Facebook’s independent board of directors will announce on Wednesday whether it will unblock former US President Donald Trump’s account. The long awaited verdict will bring the focus back to how the world’s largest social network decides what world leaders and politicians can and cannot say on their platforms.

Here’s how big tech companies deal with this sensitive issue:

WHO WILL RECEIVE SPECIAL TREATMENT?

Facebook Inc (FB.O) and Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) currently have rules that give world leaders, elected officials and political candidates more leeway than ordinary users.

Facebook defines politicians as candidates running for office, current incumbents and many cabinet members, along with political parties and their leaders. Twitter’s public interest rules apply to verified government officials or elected officials, their appointed successors and candidates, registered political parties, or candidates for public office with more than 100,000 followers.

WHAT ARE THE CURRENT RULES?

Twitter says the site is wrong to leave content open when it is in the public interest, including keeping records to hold executives accountable. It also enables leaders to interact with other public figures and to participate in the “foreign policy saber rattling”.

In March, Twitter began adding warnings to some world leaders’ tweets, limiting their reach, which would be removed if sent by the average user. Twitter also says it is pulling down the tweets of heads of state and government for crimes like promoting terrorism or posting private information.

Facebook is exempting politicians’ posts and paid ads from its fact-checking program, although it has begun to apply a few separate labels, such as notices of the rarity of electoral fraud on some of Trump’s election posts.

The company’s “newsworthiness exception” also allows violating posts by politicians on the site if the public interest outweighs the damage.

Facebook, which had on occasion removed Trump’s content for violations such as COVID-19 misinformation prior to its lockdown, has faced backlash from staff for its inaction on inflammatory posts, including one on anti-racism protests that said, “If the looting begins, the shooting begins ”.

Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, Inc. (1983) says there are no other rules for world leaders, although its exception for “educational” or “documentary” content allows certain reporting of politicians making illegal statements.

WHAT HAPPENS TO TRUMP?

Following the January 6th Capitol Riot, Twitter banned Trump for violating his “glorification of violence” rules and deviated from precedent to allow for possible interpretations of his tweets.

Facebook has suspended Trump’s accounts on its platforms indefinitely. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the current context means that the risks of allowing him to use the service are “just too great”.

A number of online platforms banned the former president, including Snapchat (SNAP.N), which had already removed him from its Discover program, and Amazon-owned (AMZN.O) Twitch, which previously stopped him in June for hateful content had locked.

YouTube also gave Trump’s channel its first strike after the uprising. This would normally come with a week-long lockout, but the account will remain frozen months later. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said the lockdown will be lifted if the company finds out that the risk of violence in the real world has decreased.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER GLOBAL LEADERS?

Human rights groups have argued that technology companies must consistently apply standards to other global leaders.

Facebook’s suspension of Trump followed bans on government officials in recent years, including in India and Myanmar for promoting violence, but the company had never blocked a current president, prime minister or head of state before.

Leaders who have received special public attention but remain active on social media sites include Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who used Twitter to call for the elimination of Israel, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who posted on Facebook that indigenous citizens are “developing” and becoming more human.

In March, Facebook frozen the page of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for 30 days due to the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Both Maduro and Bolsonaro were previously removed from Facebook and Twitter for this reason during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, Facebook banned the Myanmar military from the website after it took power in a coup. UN human rights investigators have previously said that the platform has played a key role in inciting violence in Myanmar.

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?

Both Facebook and Twitter called for their rules after scrutinizing their handling of the U.S. presidential election and the storming of the Capitol by pro-Trump supporters.

Facebook has asked its board of directors to make recommendations along with the Trump decision, while Twitter has opened a public poll.

Reporting from Elizabeth Culliford; Editing by Kenneth Li and Nick Zieminski

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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