Russian State Duma Chairman
“Colleagues, think again about what happened. The current president, for whom almost 75 million Americans voted, and his supporters, were deprived of a fundamental right – freedom of speech.”
Source: RIA Novosti, January 19, 2021
On January 19, Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, spoke on the topic of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s ban from social media, most notably Twitter and Facebook.
“Colleagues, think again about what happened,” Volodin said. “The current president, for whom almost 75 million Americans voted, and his supporters, were deprived of a fundamental right – freedom of speech.”
The claim that Trump’s free speech rights were denied is misleading.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Key to this amendment is the phrase, “Congress shall make no law.” The First Amendment does not overrule the right of private companies like Twitter to control their platforms and is subject to exceptions. Judges, for example, may gag participants in a civil or criminal trial from speaking publicly about the proceedings.
Facebook and Twitter have been criticized by the political left and right for inconsistent and often unclear policies when it comes to content moderation. After Trump was blamed for inciting the violent riot by his supporters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, his social media posts took on heightened significance and drew more criticism.
When Twitter suspended Trump’s account on January 8, citing fears that his posts could incite more violence, critics pointed out that the platform had long given Trump special status as president, effectively freeing him from the rules that governed others.
Others speculated that the timing of the suspension seemed designed to curry favor with the Trump’s Democratic opponents, who now control the White House and both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political divide have raised the idea that social networks like Twitter and Facebook should be treated more like a public utility, and thus subject to regulation by government. Others say Facebook and Twitter, while necessary to many people and businesses in the modern world, aren’t the same as electricity, water, and gas companies.
Government regulation of such utilities is largely designed to keep utility providers from gouging consumers and to ensure accessibility to citizens. Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are free (although users surrender personal data).
In October 2020, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle during a teleconference hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce. Republican lawmakers charged the social media giants with anti-conservative bias in moderation, while Democrats were concerned that the platforms have not been vigilant enough in policing disinformation. Dorsey stated that Twitter’s moderation was geared towards suppressing activity that could lead to real-world harm or violence. Zuckerberg touted the numbers of Facebook staff dedicated to content moderation.
There is no evidence that Trump voters were banned en masse from social media. However, the new, Twitter-like social network Parler, which became popular with Trump supporters and conservatives, lost its hosting service via Amazon after the Capitol riots on January 6. Apple and Google removed the network’s app from their respective app stores. Amazon, Apple, and Google are all private companies.
The actions of these social networks can be contrasted with Volodin’s Russia. There, the state bans thousands of websites. Social media users have faced fines and criminal charges for what they post and share online. The label of “foreign agent” is used to suppress and smear individuals and organizations that fall afoul of authorities.
All of this has been done despite Article 29 of the Russian constitution, which explicitly guarantees freedom of speech and bans “censorship.”
In a rare instance of agreement between an ally of the Kremlin and the Russian opposition, the jailed critics of President Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, also condemned the suspension of Trump’s Twitter account, calling it a “dangerous precedent.”