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For the more than 4.5 billion active Internet users across the globe, social media has become an important part of their lives. Such platforms are used to communicate with others, to stay up-to-date on what is happening in the lives of the people and communities they follow, and to learn more about what is happening in the world. Where social media was first introduced as a place to connect with friends and family members, it has now become a place to connect with practically anyone. Many well-known people use social media platforms in order to share their experiences and get a bigger online following. This is not only the case for celebrities and influencers, but also for elected and government officials. However, these officials are not your “normal users” of social media platforms: they benefit from an exception.

Different social media platforms provide exceptions to their terms of service for elected and government officials, which allows them to publish certain content that would usually not be allowed on the platforms. Twitter calls this the public-interest exception.[1] Under this exception, Twitter allows users to view tweets that directly contribute to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern, which would otherwise be taken down for a violation of Twitter’s rules. This exception is currently limited to one type of public-interest content, namely tweets from elected and government officials. The reason for providing these officials with this exception is the significant public interest in knowing and being able to discuss their actions and statements. In case this exception is used, a notice providing context about the rule violation will be attached to the tweet, instead of removing the tweet altogether. The exception is not used when the risk of harm is deemed higher than the public interest.

The elected official who has undoubtedly introduced the power of this exception to the broader public was former US President Donald Trump. Even though his tweets often violated the rules of the platform, they were often not taken down, but instead were accompanied by a notice about the rule violation. This allowed Trump to share his thoughts and ideas with his millions of followers, even though the credibility of the content of his tweets was often disputed. However, after the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, Twitter’s stance regarding Trump’s status changed. During this event, Trump’s personal Twitter account was temporarily suspended, and he was required to remove Tweets that were inciting violence according to the social media platform. Two days later, the platform decided that his account would be permanently suspended due to the risk of further incitement of violence.[2]

This suspension of Donald Trump has led to many different responses. Some users of the social media platform were happy with Twitter’s decision, with some even stating that this decision should have been made much earlier. Other voices criticized Twitter’s decision, stressing that it was both wrong and hypocritical. Different world leaders have voiced their concerns about Twitter’s decision as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the decision by Twitter to suspend Trump from the platform was problematic. Since the freedom of opinion is a fundamental right, it should be addressed via an intervention prescribed within the framework defined by legislators, she argued. Merkel also emphasized that social media platform executives should not make decisions to intervene in this right.[3] Polish government officials have also denounced the suspension of Trump’s Twitter account, as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued that Twitter’s decision constitutes censorship and the undermining of free speech.[4]

I would argue that this is not the case. This does not constitute censorship or an unacceptable infringement on the right to free speech. The decision by Twitter only means that he is not allowed to express himself on the platform; it does not mean that he, one of the most powerful individuals on the planet, is completely silenced. Twitter is a private company, and in order to use their platform, you have to agree and comply with their terms and conditions. When a tweet violates the rules of Twitter, the user knows (or, rather, should know) that this may have an impact on their tweet or their account. Of course, the decisions that are being made by social media companies to remove content or remove accounts should always be properly assessed and scrutinized, and both the decisions as well as the process should be detailed in a transparent manner. But I would argue that these companies do have the right to make such decisions.

I will even take my argument one step further. I am of the opinion that social media platforms should not offer a public-interest exception to anyone. Elected and government officials should not enjoy an exception on these platforms, but they should instead be seen as regular users such as you and I. These officials often have thousands if not millions of followers, and such individuals should be setting an example. When they publish content that is harmful but still accepted by social media platforms such as Twitter, it may be setting an example for users that essentially suggests that this kind of harmful content is perfectly acceptable. Instead, it is critical that users are aware that harmful content should not be shared on the platform, regardless of the source. As is seen in the case of Donald Trump, tweets by elected and government officials can have a significant impact on society, which is why Twitter’s general rules should apply to these officials as well. It is time for Twitter and other social media companies to reassess their public-interest exception, and recognize that the digital “town square” will only further decay into a tool of polarisation, vitriol, and worse so long as the people we are supposed to turn to for guidance and wisdom can continue to be a wellspring of disinformation, division, and animosity.

[1] More information about Twitter’s public-interest exception can be found here: https://help.twitter.com/en/rules-and-policies/public-interest.

[2] Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump (8 January 2021): https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension.html.

[3] Euronews, ‘Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is ‘problematic,’ says Angela Merkel’ (12 January 2021). Access online: https://www.euronews.com/2021/01/12/donald-trump-s-twitter-ban-is-problematic-says-angela-merkel.

[4] The Guardian, ‘Poland plans to make censoring of social media accounts illegal’ (14 January 2021). Access online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/14/poland-plans-to-make-censoring-of-social-media-accounts.

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