Last week, several social media sites including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram announced they were suspending President Donald Trump’s accounts permanently in the wake of his supporter’s attack on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Public opinion is divided on the subject with some calling it an attack on free speech while others claim Trump “incited a riot” or encouraged the attackers in some form.
Dr. Loran Lewis, an assistant professor in SWOSU’s Department of Art, Communication and Theatre, offers some perspective to the situation.
He said while Trump is one of the biggest names to be removed from the platforms, he is not the first.
“There have been several people who have been banned, whether permanently or temporarily,” Lewis said. “Steve Bannon, an advisor to President Trump before the two had a falling out, was banned. If you look at the list of people and organizations who have been banned, most of them have been right-wing extremist groups using threatening language.”
Lewis said social media has been “hot and cold” about what they will and will not tolerate, but the events last week at the U.S. Capitol Building has sites being stricter regarding what is tolerated. However, restrictions most likely will loosen up once tensions ease.
“It probably will continue to happen, but not to the extent it is happening now,” Lewis said.
There are some concerns with social media sites banning people from their platforms.
“It’s better to let people speak their mind because then they’re out in the open,” Lewis said. “If you don’t allow them, then they go underground and you don’t know what’s happening.”
He said with President Trump off Twitter, no one is sure what he is thinking or planning or what his state of mind is.
There also is the question of when to restrict speech on a website.
“It’s a fine line,” Lewis said. “Criticizing a group of people could be considered hate speech, but it also could be justified. Where do you draw that line?”
Going forward, sites will need to set clear boundaries and consequences for crossing them.
Dr. Lewis said social media sites silencing users with outspoken, radical beliefs really “flies in the face of the First Amendment.” However, since the sites are owned by private companies, it is allowed.
“The way to battle speech you disagree with is not to restrict speech but to allow more speech so more points of view can be expressed,” he said.
Lewis said radical ideas do not mean they have no substance or logic behind them, but the way they are expressed may come across as rude or abrasive. The First Amendment encourages a “marketplace of ideas,” which allowed everyone to have their say and choose what to believe.
Limits to the First Amendment include imminent danger and actively encouraging violence toward another person or group.
“Right now, President Donald Trump is on that fine line of ‘did he encourage it, did he incite imminent danger or did he merely express an idea,’” Lewis said.
Social media also has created echo chambers for groups, allowing them to feed off one another and creating more problems in freedom of speech issues.
“The fact you can block out all other forms of communication and just concentrate on your own beliefs is the problem with social media,” Lewis said. “You don’t necessarily get a level playing field or variety in points of view.”
The inauguration for President-elect Joe Biden is in one week, but it is unsure what else may happen before Trump steps down as the president, or what may happen after Biden assumes the role.
“The fact you can block out all other forms of communication and just concentrate on your own beliefs is the problem with social media.” — Dr. Loran Lewis, an assistant professor in SWOSU’s Department of Art, Communication and Theatre