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Social media at a crossroads

Like almost all social media platforms, Twitter was originally designed with a purely social purpose. By posting status updates, users could communicate, keep in touch with distant friends and share what they had been getting up to.

15 years later, the platform is almost entirely unrecognisable. With over 300 million users, spanning journalists, world leaders and business magnates, Twitter has become one of the most important global disseminators of information. As traditional media saw its star wane, social media leapt into the void becoming, for many, their primary source of current events and news.

This meteoric success, however, is a double-edged sword – having assumed a central role in deciding the information the world sees, they have assumed the responsibility that was once carried by traditional newspapers. This adaptation has not been smooth.

With the rampant rise of disinformation, targeted advertising for political gain and ever-increasing animosity between political factions, social media platforms have found themselves assuming a role they never intended: the role of editor.

With reputations increasingly damaged, and pressure mounting, 2020 saw several social media platforms, Twitter in particular, begin to realise the responsibility they had inherited. Measures such as labelling tweets which may contain inaccurate information were introduced but seen by many as inadequate to solve the wider issues they were accused of exacerbating.

Just as their role in the wider world had changed, the reputation of these platforms began to turn: at best, they were seen as turning a blind eye to the content they hosted; at worst, they were accused of deliberately stoking it.  

The reputation of these social media companies was at a crucial crossroads. They faced a stark choice: continue to adhere to principles of an open forum, placing responsibility solely on their users, or to assume responsibility for the networks they operated, intervening and censoring. Both options had reputational risk – sit back and be accused of fomenting division; take action and be painted as an Orwellian controller of the truth.

This unenviable dichotomy led to slow progress, with changes made gradually and generally in reaction to widespread pressure. When trying to protect your reputation, reactive measures never truly suffice – if the damage is big enough, there is little you can do to repair it after.

The storming of the Capitol building in Washington threatened to do such damage – and so social media platforms reacted like never before.

On Wednesday, as images of a sacked Capitol were viewed with horror around the world, Twitter made its biggest move to date – it suspended the account of the US President, Donald Trump after he referred to those who forced their way into the Capitol complex as patriots. This was primarily a warning: once the offending tweet was deleted, the suspension was lifted.

This reprieve did not last long. On Friday, Trump published two further tweets, announcing he would not attend the inauguration of his successor Joe Biden and once again glorifying his supporters, some of whom were directly involved in the violence seen on Wednesday. Twitter suspended his account permanently, releasing a statement that explained: our determination is that the two Tweets above are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021, and that there are multiple indicators that they are being received and understood as encouragement to do so.

Although this move provoked uproar, with many claiming that the platform had overreached, it set off a swift chain reaction.

Towards the end of last week, both Apple and Google announced the removal of Parler, an alternative to Twitter that does not regulate content and so had become a haven for those banned from other platforms, from their app stores. On Sunday, Amazon Web Services, which provides the cloud computing service which Parler runs on, announced they would be removing Parler from its servers, essentially deleting it from the public internet.

The storm that had engulfed Twitter had moved on, now affecting those who provided the foundations for social media sites to operate.

This marks a decisive shift – if before, tech companies were at a crossroads, many have now crossed the Rubicon. No longer able to distance themselves, and their reputations, from what appears on their platforms, they have taken a decisive step towards editorialising.

The fallout will not stop here.

Following these seismic decisions, social media giants are now being attacked from both sides of the political spectrum: either for acting too late or, conversely, for stifling free expression. Beyond this, fears of industry censorship from the incoming president and a Democratic majority in both houses, along with equivalent pressure in the UK from the likes of the Online Harms Bill, are causing panic within the industry.

In the Icarus myth, Icarus is warned by his father to avoid complacency by not flying too close to the sea and to avoid hubris by not flying too close to the sun. Paying little attention, Icarus soars into the sky and as he nears the sun, the wax that holds his makeshift wings melts: he falls from the sky into the sea where he drowns. For social media platforms to survive at their current trajectory, extensive and extremely careful consideration will need to be applied. For those managing their reputation, now is the moment they earn their keep while trying to navigate through the ever-growing storm. If they cannot get the balance right, like Icarus, they risk crashing down to earth.

Whether you are facing defamation in the press, by an individual, harassment, blackmail, mishandling of your private data, pre-publication threats, or you wish to gain top legal advice on such matters, reach out to our leading reputation and privacy team today. 

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