By January 2021, at the latest, we clearly saw how much communication power social media corporations have, says Turo Uskali, an associate professor in journalism from the University of Jyväskylä.
According to The Washington Post, former President of the United States Donald Trump sent a total of 56,571 tweets over the last five-and-a-half years before his Twitter account was shut down on 8 January due to what was viewed as his support of the temporary takeover of the U.S. Congress and other incitement of violence. After this move, about ten other social media platforms have shut down his user accounts on the same grounds.
Many experts say that President Trump was allowed to misuse his communicative power for too long as he was using his tweets to spread lies and hate speech about, for example, dozens of his political opponents. On the other hand, many experts have also said that Trump is entitled to freedom of speech and it was wrong to ban him permanently from the social media platforms.
However, responsible citizens as well as communication and media corporations must comply with the law that forbids, for instance, mediating messages that urge violence. In this sense, one can only wonder why Trump was treated differently for so long. It should be noted, nevertheless, that Twitter started to insert warnings and hide some of the President’s tweets already in spring 2020.
It can also be argued that Trump still has plenty of freedom of speech and communication power even after the bans issued by social media. Until the transfer of power, he had (potentially) the entire traditional presidential communication arsenal at his disposal, including websites, direct TV broadcasts, press conferences and releases. He is also free to set up his own Trump media platform, if he so wishes.
Yet, when the real-time communication channel to his 88 million Twitter followers was shut down, Trump seemed to have lost his former communicative power, his continuous media visibility. The low threshold, ease of use, real time and immediate wide coverage of his communication through social media were all gone.
The effectiveness and addictiveness of communication in social media have been highlighted in the smartphone era, and the users of social media are already counted in the billions, while the time spent on these platforms just keeps increasing. Accordingly, advertisement-funded social media corporations are nowadays among the most successful businesses in the world.
Social media corporations have long played down their role, claiming that they only provide platforms, not content, for communication. That is why they have rarely intervened in hate speech, for example. The beginning of January 2021 can now perhaps be considered a turning point. Social media corporations seem at last to have turned into media companies that take more responsibility for the content of the messages they distribute.
Historians can later review whether this change was temporary or permanent, or perhaps only regional, specific to the United States. There are also plenty of other research topics. The main questions include whether the global social media corporations already have too much communicative power. And if the answer is yes, how should this power be controlled and perhaps restricted by political decisions?
It is preferable, of course, that the social media corporations would themselves use their communicative power in an ethically sustainable way. They could continuously moderate and even edit content on their platforms while upholding freedom of speech and not becoming guilty of, for example, political censorship. For over 50 years already, this has been the customary practice in Finnish journalism, for example, in which journalists and media outlets are committed to the Guidelines for Journalists and the decisions of the Council of Mass Media.
Turo Uskali, Associate Professor, Journalism, Department of Language and Communication Studies
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