John Dolan: Censored by the internet - how I joined Trump on the naughty step

If the most powerful man in the world is subject to scrutiny and censorship from a company with a global reach like Twitter, doesn’t that make Twitter the most powerful force in the world? So asks John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: Censored by the internet - how I joined Trump on the naughty step

SO MUCH FOR THE LAND OF FREE SPEECH! A censored tweet by Donald Trump

IF there’s one thing we might have to thank Donald Trump for when he is finally dragged, kicking and screaming, from the White House, it is the fact he could end up unwittingly being the man who finally helped bring the social media giants to heel.

We witnessed an extraordinary four years with the blonde bombshell at the helm — and the recent election was surreal — so much so that one of the most remarkable aspects of Trump’s downfall has so far gone unrecognised.

Until now, the social media giants have managed to elude all global governments’ attempts to regulate them and pin them down, by insisting they are merely platforms for their users, and not publishers.

This is a vital distinction. A platform takes no responsibility for the comments of its users, while creaming off the advertising; a publisher takes responsibility for what it publishes.

The Echo is a publisher and any person who believes themself defamed by it can take due legal redress.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest have always recoiled from this — and with good reason. If Mark Zuckerberg and his company was held responsible for all the bile that fills up many Facebook comments every day, they really wouldn’t have a viable business for long.

However, when sites like Facebook and Twitter start making decisions about what appears on their platforms, then they are really acting as publishers.

If they are censoring certain types of content, banning people from their platforms, or blocking content, even by using algorithms rather than people, then they are no different from traditional publishers like newspapers or magazines.

This has long been a grey area — indeed, Zuckerberg once admitted his company was both a platform and publisher, which is a bit like saying you’re half pregnant and half not.

But now we have a black and white example of a social media giant becoming a publisher. Step forward, m’lud, Twitter and Donald J Trump.

President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In the wake of the U.S election, Trump kicked his toys out of the pram and ludicrously claimed he had still won the public vote.

A publisher, such as a newspaper, could review and edit these remarks, add balance and put them in context — for example, pointing out the claims had no basis in fact and that many of Trump’s own supporters had conceded defeat.

A mere platform would just have to peddle the comments, unfiltered, in all their glory.

This is where Twitter broke the mould. The social media site, on which Trump has almost 90 million global followers, decided to ‘flag’ Trump’s tweets in which he claimed election fraud. Last Saturday, 15 of his 28 tweets were marked as “disputed”. The next day another five out of 10 were tagged (he sends a lot of tweets!).

This was a vital shift.

The fact the censorship was greeted with joy and celebration around the world is understandable enough, given how unpopular Trump is, especially among left-leaning social media circles. But I have to admit, I find it disconcerting, if not troubling.

Is it the thin end of the wedge?

If the most powerful man in the world is subject to scrutiny and censorship from a company with a global reach like Twitter, doesn’t that make Twitter the most powerful force in the world?

Who exactly decides what and who should be flagged on this usually free-for-all ‘platform’?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended the policy, insisting the flagging related to a company “civic integrity policy”. When Trump stands down from his position of power, he indicated, the flagging would stop.

So, him interfering in a political process and election is fine and dandy, but all non-politicians can keep spewing unfiltered and uncensored nonsense? Shouldn’t it be the other way round? This is all very odd, don’t you think?

If political leaders are going to be held to account by social media giants, I wonder if President-elect Joe Biden or Taoiseach Micheál Martin will be censored the next time they make an outlandish claim about fixing their country’s health system, for instance, which cannot be corroborated.

There is another, rather sinister layer to add to this, when you consider that a New York Times scoop about Biden’s son, which could have seriously hampered his election chances, was restricted for a while on Facebook and Twitter’s feeds.

For an article published by one of the world’s greatest newspapers to be treated in this way is unprecedented — begging the question, would they have done the same if it were a Trump story?

Again, few people in Ireland have questioned these anomalies, just glad to see the back of Trump and his divisive agenda.

Few will mourn him when he departs the world stage. But, equally, few will mourn the social media giants if their attempts to dance around the issue of platform v publisher end up being brought to book. If this leads to their multi-billion-euro empires having manners put on them, Trump will have done the world some service.

******

IT’S not just Trump who can fall victim to internet censorship.

I was shocked this week to find my Fantasy Premier League team name had been deleted by the company that runs the hugely popular online game.

One of my pesky kids had grabbed my phone and changed my team name to ‘Daddy Dumbo’, which everyone in my house for some reason found hilarious.

However, the Fantasy Premier League didn’t see the funny side.

“Your team name was flagged by our profanity filter that scans all team names for words that could be deemed inappropriate or considered offensive to others,” they chided. “It’s important to us that Fantasy Premier League is an inclusive space where everyone feels welcome and safe.”

I scratched my head. Is the word ‘Daddy’ sexist now? Or is ‘Dumbo’ an insult to baby elephants with large ears? I know the original Dumbo film is now seen as racist, could that be what upset the internet overlords?

Very baffling — not least because my son’s team name, Póg Mo Thóin escaped censure...

I flirted with renaming my team Dumbo Daidí, as clearly the ‘profanity filter’ couldn’t detect naughty words as Gaeilge.

Then I had a brainwave: Since I support Manchester City and am playing the game with my kids, I decided on ‘Pop’s Gladiators’.

My wife and kids think it’s god-awful and cheesy; I think it’s clever and hilarious. Perfect...

But will it escape the internet’s profanity censors?

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