We are surrounded by battles, if one wants to use the language of war that seems to be the default setting of a number of political leaders. For some months the world focused on defeating Covid-19, but as interest in that wanes, President Trump, and indeed the USA, have all too readily provided us with two other touchpaper moments that have claimed our attention, and they are intertwined: the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Trump’s executive order targeting social media platforms.
Trump signed this executive order two days after Twitter tagged two of his tweets with fact-check warnings. Twitter placed a warning over the President’s tweet, warning readers that the post “glorifies violence.” Yes, it’s that tweet in which Trump appeared to threaten people protesting the death of George Floyd with being shot. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” he happily typed from the White House, having made so many preposterous statements on his preferred social media channel that it never occurred to him that one day it might bite him on the ass.
The message from Twitter read: “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence,” the message reads. “However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.” More than a few people applauded Twitter’s decision to call Trump out, but when Twitter did it again over his tweet that mail-in voting would lead to widespread fraud, it was the straw that broke the President’s fragile ego.
Mark Zuckerberg disapproved of Twitter’s move and self-righteously declared Facebook would not be an “arbiter of the truth,” which provoked some eye rolling as people remembered its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook’s employees, including senior staff felt rather differently and staged a virtual walkout to protest Trump’s posts. The New York Times reported, “staff members have circulated petitions and threatened to resign, and a number of employees wrote publicly about their unhappiness on Twitter and elsewhere.” One Facebook employee wrote in an internal message board, “The hateful rhetoric advocating violence against black demonstrators by the US President does not warrant defense under the guise of freedom of expression.” Zuckerberg’s mantra “the public should be allowed to decide what to believe,” hasn’t washed with his own employees.
What does Trump’s executive order mean for social media platforms going forward?
In legal terms it is an attempt to withdraw the free speech protection that Section 230 gives to platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google, by not holding them responsible for what users post on their platforms. Shirin Ghaffary at Vox, explains, “the order tasks regulators at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to create new rules that could pull back some of those protections, potentially opening them up to a litany of lawsuits for libel, defamation, and other complaints.”
However, don’t panic just yet: “many legal experts say the order is largely toothless and will be challenged in court. More important is the executive order’s symbolic threat to social media companies, “as they continue to grapple with moderating contentious speech,” Ghaffary says.
It’s an opportunity for decentralized social media
In the midst of all this, Billy Bambrough makes an interesting suggestion. He says, “The move could further open the door for blockchain-based decentralized alternatives that are already beginning to threaten the dominance of Facebook and Twitter.
The existing social media giants are “are not too big to fail but rather too big to block,” Bambrough says, and cites the face-off between the “free speech absolutists who “argue that being removed or censored from the biggest social media channels prevents them from taking part in society,” and the capitalists who believe “commercial businesses should be able to decide who uses their services and can’t be made to host people and opinions they dislike.”
As a result, some think decentralized, blockchain-based social networks that are resistant to government or internal control are a potential answer. Su Zhu, the chief executive of Three Arrows Capital tweeted that Web3 has been underrated until now, and as Bambrough comments, “A number of decentralized social media projects have emerged in recent years, though have so far failed to convincingly break through to the mainstream.” Perhaps this is their moment to change that.
Returning to the war theme, Daniel Gross, the founder of startup accelerator Pioneer, asked on Twitter, “”Is Twitter’s fact-labeling a Franz Ferdinand moment,” in reference to the assassination that has been credited with sparking the First World War.
No doubt the Silicon Valley ‘generals’ are preparing strategies and battle formations to protect their position in this regulatory war for the social networks, but the ultimate winner could be a whole new world of blockchain-based social media platforms.