On Wednesday at Washington’s Capitol, we saw the culmination of what happens when fascism – both online and off – goes unchecked by institutions.
For years, we’ve seen Donald Trump use his online platforms to incite hate, violence and share misinformation on a myriad of topics, including Covid-19 and the 2019 USA election.
While social media companies now appear to have decided this week’s attack was the “tipping point” and banned the US President from certain platforms, this comes too late.
This is why we urgently need acknowledgment, recognition and regulation of tech giants when it comes to making their online spaces safe.
It shouldn’t be down to a few rich, white men holding all the power, deciding if to act, and when. We need robust tech accountability.
Social media companies have spent years allowing Trump to use his platform to wreak havoc in ways that should have resulted in, according to their own terms of conditions, further action.
From sharing damaging information about Covid-19 to inciting racial hatred by retweeting a video of someone shouting “white power” during the height of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, social media companies have only ever been quick to act on those wishing Trump harm, but not on any of the harm he’s caused.
Social media companies have only take action after an act, of what I can only describe as terrorism, from his supporters, encouraged by him and only with 11 days in office remaining. Why was this level of violence the tipping point to act?
So why have tech giants only now just decided enough is enough?
It’s important to clearly state that what happened in the Capitol didn’t materialise from thin air. This is why it is important for all tech companies to first acknowledge their role. They must own up to the fact they have been egregiously slow to act, and their inaction has helped contribute to today’s climate in the US. They must also recognise the enormous amount of work not-for-profit organisations have done in calling on social media platforms to make their spaces fairer and safer.
What we saw transpire over the past few days – let alone the past few years – was preventable, at least in part. The problem with social media companies being slow to act on Trump isn’t a single issue; it speaks to a much bigger issue brewing under the surface: the lack of accountability, transparency and regulation that social media companies have.
And it’s not just Trump’s online violence that we’ve seen social media turn a blind eye to – it’s taking any action or responsibility.
Just last year, Facebook failed its civil rights audit. Glitch’s Covid-19 report showed that over 80% of online abuse for women and non-binary people came from Twitter, Facebook and the companies that Facebook own (Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger).
It shouldn’t be down to a few rich white men holding all the power, deciding if to act, and when. We need robust tech accountability.
Tech giants have a magnitude of influence over billions of people, governments, democracies and economies. This is why discussion around Trump’s eventual ban can’t just be about him as an individual. Wider systemic change is needed and therefore the end of self-regulation.
In less than two weeks, Trump will no longer be president. But the problems with fascism, radicalisation, safety and digital self-care on these platforms won’t disappear with him.
I worry that the levels of destruction and damage that social media companies have caused by allowing Trump and his supporters to thrive whilst spieling hate and misinformation is on a scale that we don’t yet fully understand the extent of.
The far right isn’t the only issue that needs to be addressed – the disproportionate levels of abuse that women face, and the lack of digital citizenship, education and research – are major problems too.
If we don’t call for wider action from our institutions now, then at what point will we be able to? Will it take more women to face abuse or another incident of terrorism before we implement the necessary accountability measures to make online spaces safe for all?
We need institutions to ask the right questions, and faster. The UK has announced the long awaited Online Harms Bill and European States are proposing the European Digital Services Directive. While good initiatives, these will take years and so we need a short to medium term plan for the interim: taxing tech companies and portioning an amount for online safety and digital citizenship education.
While social media companies continue to ignore their very real influence on the offline world, the far right continues to grow, misinformation continues to spread, and the steps towards an irreversible path continue to be trod. If we continue on the current trajectory, social media companies’ dominance and influence will continue to advance, while their profits do too. All at the expense of people’s physical and online safety.
While we may welcome social media companies finally banning Trump, it’s crucial that we ask why they didn’t act sooner – why they didn’t act for women, Black communities, Jewish communities and other minority groups.
As we go into 2021, as digital citizens, we must continue to demand they address the growing online harms thriving on their platforms.
Seyi Akiwowo is CEO of Glitch UK.