Free speech vs. inciting violence on social media: Where is the line for the president and others?

BOSTON — The 12-hour suspension is over and this is the first tweet from the President.

He says his only goal in all of this was to restore the integrity of the vote and says we must continue to reform election laws.

Facebook was the latest to lock his account, it says for at least two weeks, but it could remain locked indefinitely. Twitter says it will ban him indefinitely with any future violations.

While the president appears to be playing by the rules of social media right now to keep his more than 89 million followers, he is not the only one taking the blame for what happened on Capitol Hill.

Social media websites are also facing criticism for not suspending the president’s accounts earlier.

“What he’s tweeted has turned into chaos and death before,” said David Gerzof Richard, Emerson college professor and CEO of Big Fish. “It’s only because it actually happened in the Capitol. They were admonishing him in ways by tagging and flagging various tweets on his account, but still letting him operate very much immune and different from just about every other actor.”

People who study social media trends say the combination of posts from all the different platforms made the violence at the Capitol predictable. It’s especially evident on unfiltered sites like Parler, where the president appears to have several unverified accounts.

“Regardless if he has specifically an account on Parler or not, his messages are getting through and they’re making it onto Parler and they’re being amplified,” said Richard.

“They can use the chyrons and they can really make it look as if it’s news so I think it’s really important that people find journalists they trust outlets, that have investigative teams as well and follow them and be very wary of unknown sources,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Shorenstein Center On Media, Politics, & Public Policy at The Harvard Kennedy School.

The aftermath of festering unverified social media conspiracies was on full display for the world Wednesday.

“The outcome could have been like an actual coup,” said Richard. “If you look historically at the way coups happen in other countries, they usually don’t happen on the first time. Usually, it’s seen as like ‘I can’t believe they tried to do that,’ and only when they work that people realize ‘Oh like that’s like a really serious thing we can’t afford to have this happen again.’ All you needed was a couple of other things to fall in place in the wrong direction.”

Aliyu: Some people say with conspiracy theories that it’s best not to argue with them because the more you refute and give them facts and say this is wrong, it’s been disputed the stronger that they become. Keeping that person quiet is kind of hard with social media isn’t it?

“It’s hard with social media, but the algorithms are there,” said Richard. “It’s possible to find these things and route them out.”

Before President Trump began changing his tone, the freedom of speech versus social media regulations debate was causing cognitive dissonance.

“This is a very unique circumstance in communication and conspiracy theories where the sender of the messaging is in the top leadership position,” said Richard. “It’s much more similar to dictatorships that we see outside of the United States than we ever have in the history of the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a commission put all of these platforms, regardless of size, under the same umbrella and determine some safety measures going forward especially around any elections.

Aliyu: Wouldn’t those safety measures override free speech? How do we find that line or will that line move with every new social media that comes around.?

Richard: “It’s a moving target, but at one point in time anybody could just go buy a car and drive, and then it occurred to someone, maybe we should have a driver’s test and regulations. That’s where we are with social media. None of us are allowed to yell fire in a crowded room regardless of how much freedom of speech the constitution allows because there is a point where that freedom causes chaos.”

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