EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The January 6th US Capitol riots made the debate over how speech on social media should be moderated into a viral fad. Who would do a better job at protecting free speech online, government regulation or platform self-regulation, people asked. Naturally, government officials responded to the Trump-ban, and the ensuing Parler-ban, by claiming that the “Zuckerbergs” of the world wield too much unchecked power over online speech, while neoliberals began to spread fear by referring to the government as the Big Brother, a potentially more dangerous force than the Vipassana-practicing capitalists like Jack Dorsey.

Both of these perspectives have a fair point in that the power of online speech moderation is so great that any incline of bias, corruption or inactivity on the side of the moderator can have enormous consequences on the health of the public forum. Indeed, as Facebook’s whistleblower Sophie Zhang claims, social media speech moderators already have blood on their hands for they are often too slow to act on evidence that groups of well-organised predatory accounts are spreading disinformation and propagating violence. Facebook already has—with the power of its addictive user interface—fostered violent attacks in India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. There is, for this reason, no debate whether speech moderation online is necessary, the only question is: what are we, the Europeans, doing to make speech moderation online fairer and more transparent?

 

The answer to this question becomes rather unclear as we begin to consider the dimension of “culture wars” in digital spaces, which makes platforms seem consistently biased towards either right-wing or left-wing populists. Perhaps the notion that both sides of the aisle agree that tech platforms tend to privilege radicals on the opposite side shows that Facebook, Twitter and Google are indeed quite fair in their self-regulation methodology.

The reasoning is as follows: if both sides are complaining perhaps the moderators are doing something right. However, research shows that social media platforms, because they are for-profit enterprises, tend to privilege specifically right-wing populist content for its sensational, clickbait, conspiratorial and, by extension, extremely ad-revenue friendly material. The business strategy of social media platforms is thus quite clear: allow for conspiratorial material online to fester for as long as it does not result in something bad-taste like the violent insurrection at the US Capitol and then—in a knee-jerk reaction—cut all ties with demagogues who have been fomenting disinformation and generating valuable clicks for years.

 

Considering this, the European regulation-forward climate of social media policy can seem as a refreshing alternative to the North American laissez-faire approach. The recently introduced Digital Services Act (DSA) and the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) are setting an important example for the international community on the way in which governments can more forcibly push tech platforms to curb the spread of illegal content and disinformation without clamping down on the right to free speech. When we consider Ms. Vera Jourova’s recent communiques, it becomes very clear that the goal of the European Commission is now to make tech platforms more transparent and to establish a set of clear-cut rules for political campaigning online.

The latter point is particularly important for making sure that political campaigns in Europe would not be able to “rig” elections by mass purchasing of microtargeted ads, and by creating organised online campaigns with sock puppet accounts. Political campaigners and special interests, as EU institutions now rightly maintain, should not have the right to drown out all alternative points of view in the digital sphere.

 

There is, however, a growing concern that some of the EU member states have already stepped out of line with the EU Commission’s co-regulatory approach to social media platforms and are on a path of forced deregulation of online speech. In fact, right-wing populists in Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary, have already profited greatly from the Trump-ban, because they can now use the issue of “free speech” as a dog whistle and rile up supporters by insisting that conservative ideas as such are being squashed by the globalist Big-Tech ‘elite’.

On January 15, just a week after the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC, the Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced a “freedom of speech protection” bill that would see platforms such as Facebook and Twitter fined if they removed content which does not break Polish law. This bill would be accompanied by the creation of a “free speech council” that would decide on the level of the fines, from 50,000 to five million zloty (11,000 to 1.1 million euros). Ziobro’s counterpart in Hungary, Judit Varga, has also hinted that her country may follow suit, arguing that mainstream social media sites “limit the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions”.

Considering that both Hungary and Poland have been widely criticized for erosion of media freedoms [1], and the rule of law, it seems quite strange that these countries now stand at the forefront of the fight for the freedom of speech on social media. That said, the previously discussed business model of social media platforms makes it clear that right-wing populists should, quite logically, be in favor of deregulation of speech online, because conspiratorial content tends to benefit precisely the sensationalist politics of the contemporary right. Paradoxically, by doing nothing to shape the public forum right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland may just open up a Pandora’s box of right-wing sensationalism.

 

Considering that illegal content online (incitation of violence/terrorism, pornographic content, footage of real violence, etc.) has always been regulated in one way or another, we should look skeptically at anyone who peddles the make-believe idea of pure freedom of speech online. Instead of fetishizing the dream of unregulated internet, we should continue—in accordance with the Digital Services Act and the Democracy Action Plan—to make platforms more accountable to democracy.

This means that, in addition to more proactive regulation of hate speech against vulnerable groups, incitation of violence and electoral manipulation, platforms will have to also employ transparent safeguards that would allow users to challenge all moderation decisions. Therefore, as the vice president of the Polish Chamber of Information Technology and Telecommunications Xawery Konarski said, “There is no need to pass separate laws in Poland or Hungary, the focus should be on developing good solutions in [the] DSA”.

 

The business interests of tech platforms and the political interests of right-wing populists in Europe are intimately linked even if it may not seem that way at first glance; i.e., while the former seeks to increase ad revenues, the latter is bent on producing sensationalist content that keeps people’s eyes fixed on ads. It thus stands to reason that the European right-wing populists now understand that, as the saying goes, the most efficient way to control a man is to convince him that he is free.

Tadas Vinokuras

 

[1] Both countries perform poorly in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. https://rsf.org/en/ranking

 

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