Should social media cut politicians’ accounts and if yes, when?

By Peter Bajomi-Lazar, Budapest Business School. When Facebook and some other social media outlets ‘de-platformed’ Donald Trump after his infamous speech which may have contributed to the attack launched on the Capitol, conservative and liberal opinion leaders protested alike—but for very different reasons. Conservatives voiced concerns about political censorship and the hegemony of ‘politically correct’ views, while liberals argued that a dangerous precedence had been created, as the line between hate speech and incitement on the one hand and free speech on the other is often diffuse and blurred, and hence nothing in the future will stop social media banning other forms of disturbing content.

Well, I think both of these arguments are mistaken. It was right to de-platform President Trump.

The conservative argument on censorship is gravely mistaken, because freedom of speech was not invented to defend the government; it was created as a defense against government. Historically, the free press was established to counter the powers of the government. As Edmund Burke put it in 1790, “There are three estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” The instrumental justification of press freedom was further developed in 1792 by Thomas Paine, who suggested that “in the representative system, the reason for everything must publicly appear. Every man is a proprietor in government and considers it a necessary part of his business to understand. It concerns his business, because it affects its property.” Over two hundred years later, in 2001, Michael Kunczik wrote this, in a similar vein: “The so-called ‘government-say-so journalism’ is irreconcilable with an ethically based journalism … the most important task of democratic journalism … is to help prevent the establishment of oligarchic leadership that is fundamentally harmful to the development of democracy.” In my reading, this means that free speech and free press are not created for the government to spread its views, but for criticisms of the government to flourish. The social media outlets de-platforming the incumbent president did the right thing.

The liberal argument, which claims that a bad precedent has been set in that the borderline between what is tolerable free expression and what is legitimately restrained hate speech and incitement is too blurred for one to curtail the base right of free expression, is also mistaken. The fact that the limits of hate speech and incitement are difficult to draw does not imply that some acts of hate speech and incitement cannot be identified as such. Sometimes, the violation of norms is clear as day. Trump’s speech is without doubt a case in point, as the incited masses immediately moved on to storm the Capitol, and at least five people lost their lives in the violent attack. The President’s speech put other base values at risk; it created clear and imminent danger. It is not only the content of the speech that matters, but also who speaks, and to what extent. It follows that de-platforming the incumbent president was the right thing to do.

But, as of yesterday, Mr. Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America. In the future, he will likely speak out for the new government’s opposition. It is time Facebook and other social media platforms give him back his account and let him freely speak.

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