Following the ban of Donald Trump from Twitter and the Myanmar Military from Facebook, should we be questioning how much power social media sites have over politics?
In February 2021, Facebook banned the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, from Facebook.
The censoring followed the capture of Myanmar by its military on 1 February which has resulted in its detention of the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite calls from the UK to free Myanmar’s ousted leader, the country has been shocked by bloody violence involving tear gas and grenades, and even firing into crowds, which has led to the death of many protesting against the military. As it stands, British people residing in the south-east Asian country are being advised to flee as the military continues to suppress voices of protestors, refusing to free Suu Kyi.
The social media giant gave four reasons for its ban of the military, which included the Tatmadaw’s historic human rights abuses, the use of the platform to promote its messages, and persistent attempts to defy restrictions Facebook initially placed upon them, stating that there is a “likelihood that online threats could lead to offline harm”. So what does Facebook’s banning of the Myanmar military mean for the future use of social media networks in political battles? Is Facebook’s intervention protective, or is it just a gateway to more concerning censorship? There are two main issues to approach: firstly, at what point does a social ban become warranted? And secondly: who should have the power to demand this?
This conversation is an interesting one, not least because it affected the western world at the start of the year after the banning of Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook, sparking conversation from campaigners on all sides of the political spectrum. Whilst some may argue differently, it could be said that Trump’s ban from social media is more complex than the banning of the Myanmar military. Trump was accused of inciting violence at the Capitol building, which the majority believe he shares responsibility for - however, his role in that riot was not as clear-cut as the actions of Tatmadaw forces. As the world watched, Trump was acquitted at his second impeachment trial, which some may say suggests there is room for doubt in the role he played in the violence of his followers. The same doubt is not necessary for Myanmar, as the military aren’t simply inciting those amongst them to commit violence, they are ordering them. (To be clear, I am not saying that Trump was not responsible; more pointing out the slight differences between the actions of the two powers banned.) Whilst opinion has been split on whether the banning of Trump is beneficial or otherwise, there appears to be much less concern about the similar action taken against the Tatmadaw. So perhaps it follows that when a group, or individual, commits human rights violations, they are more deserving of a ban?
The issue with this is that many international powers would then, by these UN standards, require to be taken off of social media. Whilst some may continue to argue this is for the best, the mass cull would be unlikely to result in a collective attitude change. Instead, it would merely bolster the increasingly discussed “splinternet” phenomenon, creating something of an east-west divide in the use of social media sites, something that is already being seen in China. Targeting certain leaders, especially those who are not elected democratically, would likely result in our isolation from important global connections, and create further fragmentation of our cultures/diversity, amongst other concerning problems.
Are social media CEOs really to be left in charge of this type of decision making? As seen with Trump, Jack Dorsey from Twitter only stepped in at the last minute, just before the previous President left office. Leaving the censoring of certain people in the hands of businessmen means letting their personal politics dictate the appearance of our various online landscapes. But then by turning to governments, under whose authority should different platforms abide? Following the fallout from Brexit, the EU and Britain take very different stances on certain issues - and that’s without considering the views of the US. Even then, the western world often finds itself at odds with certain parts of the east, and so creating a global code of conduct sounds, at best, cumbersome. Alternatively, if individual countries set their own restrictions on what social media content is acceptable to be viewed, the issue of censorship becomes far more prominent and political. Or let’s contemplate the third radical recourse: should social media simply allow free speech past the point of personal, or public, safety? Should platforms aim to be apolitical, even when human rights are violated? Should the internet be regarded as remaining a space for any and all, regardless of morality?
It’s hard to say that what Facebook has done is wrong when considering the horrific destruction and violence that is occurring in Myanmar to innocent civilians as a result of the military coup. But we cannot ignore the implications a social media ban creates for the future or the increasing influence of social media over our understanding of ourselves and the world. To ban even one sets a precedent, and we need to decide, universally and unitedly, what we want this to foreshadow.
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