Social Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are playing havoc with the lives of political leaders and thereby their countries as there is no transparency in their functioning and they are not accountable to anyone. They are as powerful as the Church used to be before the French Revolution and they are State within State like them. They are rather more powerful than the Church as their influence cuts across not only nations but religions and the entire world is their domain.
The case of Donald Trump is a point of reference. The social media platforms banned him for an indefinite period acting as a self appointed guardian of the world’s conscience. There is no international mechanism to monitor and regulate their functioning. In order to ascertain the validity of the decision, it was referred to the Oversight Board of Facebook which consists of noted academicians, media persons, lawyers and human right activists etc. However, they have been handpicked by Mark Juckerberg and the cost, wages and all other expenditures of this referral board is borne by Facebook. Hence, it is futile to expect a fair decision.
The Oversight Board sat a few days ago and took up the matter of Trump. They upheld the decision, as expected, but challenged the policy and process of decision making and gave Facebook six months’ time to review the decision.
Facebook was launched in 2004 and the idea of an Oversight Board appeared in 2018 after a recurring demand for such a monitoring body. It was finally constituted in November 2020, just before the U.S presidential election.
The social media has emerged as the most powerful tool to shape the public opinion as online narrative creates an impression and environment which can decide the destiny of leaders and nations. Such a powerful tool in the hands of a business tycoon is highly dangerous and detrimental to a free and liberal world. Such a powerful weapon is double edged and Democrats in America need not be happy as it suits them right now. Their turn of receiving the brunt of social media would come sooner than later.
A media hype is being created that this decision’s significance is similar to that of the Supreme Court of America’s landmark judgement in Marbury v. Madison (1803), which established the power of judicial review of the Supreme Court of America over legislature and executive. Is it so? Definitely not. The case of 1803 involved all constitutional organs and not a corporate media giant and a regulatory body created by it as is the case now.
It is high time that a monitoring and regulatory body is put in place to oversee the functioning of these social media platforms. If they can do this to a man as powerful as Donald Trump then the very thought that what they can do to the lesser mortals sends shivers down the spine. The freedom of speech applies to everyone and if at all it has to be regulated, it should be done by an independent body. It could be the Supreme Court of the concerned nation or an international body meant for it and constituted with the consent of all stakeholders.
In the meantime, Trump has come up with a new social media platform, Desk, which would challenge the monopoly of existing social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This will provide an opportunity for Trump to communicate with his supporters. It is likely to wean away a sizable amount of traffic from Facebook and others given some of its brilliant and advanced features.
Trump was thrown out of Facebook in the most unceremonious manner but the possibility of the popularity of Desk would force Facebook to review its decision as suggested by the Oversight Board and restore him on Facebook and Instagram. But that is not the end of the controversy. A serious question of our age, freedom of social media, has to be solved. The sooner the better.
The author is the Registrar of Vinoba Bhave University in Hazaribag. The views expressed by the author are his own.