Opinion and Editorial

Is social media harming freedom of speech?

Shalini Verma
Filed on November 17, 2020

There are reports of foreign actors from Iran, China and Russia trying to influence the US election.

President Donald Trump with 88.9 million followers tweeted “I Won the Election”. Twitter labelled this delusional tweet with the warning ‘Official Sources called this election differently.’ This is just one example of the daily battle social media platforms have been fighting through the 2020 US General Election.

This election has provided a slice of the chaos that reigns supreme on the Internet. The barrage of social media posts, emails, and robocalls spreading disinformation, conspiracy theories and false narratives were unrelenting. Some of it was intended to mislead voters or influence them, while others were simply an attempt to discredit the election process.

There are reports of foreign actors from Iran, China and Russia trying to influence the US election. They posed as far-right American groups and targeted voters with threatening emails that led people to believe that ballots were not secret. A Study on Foreign Interference in the 2020 Election by global policy think tank RAND Corporation has shown that the main vehicles of election interference on Twitter were fake troll and super connector accounts that boosted hashtags. The Pro-Trump supporters had the highest concentration of such fake accounts. They had a greater propensity to tweet with single hashtags, unlike humans who tend to use 5-10 hashtags in a tweet.

Yet, in this election online disruptions were largely self-inflicted, through irresponsible posts by Americans. Far-right QAnon supporters have amplified unfounded conspiracy theories. There was an acceleration of disinformation such as false polling dates, dead people voting and misconceptions about mail-in ballots.

Thankfully, there was a concerted effort by a more vigilant US administration. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) had setup a virtual war room to avert cyberthreats. They had stationed personnel around the world to preempt and undermine hacker groups. The agency created a Rumor Control website to debunk sensational claims such as doctoring of the voting system to change the election outcome. Twitter went on a clean-up overdrive to remove fake accounts. Social networks have tried to curb disinformation by shadow banning influential people posting egregious comments.

Ironically, efforts to curb disinformation has led to a new problem. Reactionary social media platforms such as Parler and Gab have cashed in on what they term as tech tyranny from extreme left social media. After Joe Biden’s announcement as the winner, Trump supporters did a mass exodus from Facebook and Twitter to apps like Parler. While Parler claims to be an unbiased social media, Wikipedia and media sites report that it contains far-right content and conspiracy theories. On Parler, controversial posts such as Trump’s tweet containing unsubstantiated claims would have no such labelling or restriction.

Even before the Internet we have tended to live in ideological bubbles. On social media too, we are seeing binary ideologies. Both the left and the right leaning users look for autonomous zones for airing and sharing views.

We react to the vicious exchange of views by created online ghettos of homogenous belief systems. If I don’t like the views expressed in a group, I exit the group, or create a breakaway faction for a sense of belonging. This desire for harmonized virtual spaces is hampering our ability to understand the other’s views. To an extent, WhatsApp has helped in building these bubbles of shared cultural mores and ideologies. We feel compelled to insulate ourselves from diverse views and cocoon in these echo chambers.

The US election exposed the deepening crisis in the American democracy – of two opposing visions of America as former President Barack Obama says in his memoir. This is just part of a global problem that is driving a wedge in democracies, right down to families at dinner tables.

This dangerous precedent must be acted upon. Freedom of speech cannot exist in a vacuum. The regulation should penalize irresponsible tweeting by influential accounts with a large following. Stronger regulation of social media as ‘media’ would be for their own good. Regulation on what cannot be said on social media needs a third-party intervention. Restrictions from a neutral regulator will to an extent stem the reaction that social media is curtailing freedom of speech. The efforts of mainstream social media will be perceived as a response to regulation rather than partisan censorship.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies

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