Social media is now in the news so often that it is becoming the news. From Donald Trump’s tweets about the US election, to Facebook taking down extremist content and pro-Trump groups, everything about social media has become fascinating.
Who knew, just a few short years ago, that a company with a website would be able to censor a President. Even a decade ago you would have been laughed at for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. What is even more interesting is that when Mr Trump finally leaves the White House, Twitter is entirely within its rights to block his account (if he continues to send tweets that do not follow the rules).
Facebook has similar power. Sometimes for good – by taking down seven entire networks that were spreading extremist ideas.
The trouble is that both social media and governments are (normally) based on the same principle – to uphold democracy.
The question is where democracy now begins and ends. Facebook has now taken down the ‘Stop the Steal’ group, that amassed over 350,000 members in 24 hours. Some members of this group were asking people to ‘ready their weapons’ in case Trump lost.
But those 360,000 people (presumably that number would be much bigger if the group had not been taken down) are – in their minds at least – exercising their democratic right to air an opinion and share it with others.
Who, then, is to judge whether something is democratic or inciting radical or violent feelings? The President? No, he seems to be fuelling fires himself. The President Elect? No, not his job just yet.
Facebook or Twitter themselves? At the moment it seems that the answer is yes.
Follow that argument and you end up back at the argument that says Facebook and Twitter are not just platforms, they are censoring and editing content, from the most powerful people in the world.
If that is the case they should be dealt with as publishers – something that Trump has been arguing for some time now.
Should there, perhaps, be an independent ethics committee whose job it is to judge whether something is democratic and ‘suitable’ or not. And this group, while being a nice idea, will always be reacting (and not very fast) to posts and tweets that need to be judged instantly.
Whatever the answer might be to the huge and increasing power of social media, the beast is out of the box and will not easily be put back in.
Even if you close down Twitter and Facebook, ‘democratic’ people will simply turn to other channels to air and share their views. They already are. Then the problem becomes whether the smaller social media groups will be capable of shutting down extremist ideas as effectively as Twitter or Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp. And the answer is almost certainly ‘no’.
Ultimately the conundrum that is social media and its power might be a case of ‘better the devil you know.’ But it is a scary thought.