Moldovan career diplomat, founding member of the European Digital Diplomacy Board
The year 2021 started with the implementation of the Brexit Deal—video cameras were installed in the busy Port of Dover, a border crossing between the UK and France, recording hundreds of trucks passing through the Eurotunnel, customs and borders, under new rules. The EU as an organization and its member states are still trying to acknowledge the new looming reality. This situation was once difficult to imagine, yet we witnessed the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, bearing all of its political, social and economic consequences, which are to be a burden of British and non-British citizens. How was Brexit possible? There were some attempts to answer this question, one of them is depicted in the movie called “Brexit: Uncivil War”, directed by Toby Haynes, which presents the importance and impact of social media and this major political event.
A few days later, the US Capitol was stormed by violent protestors. The actions, witnessed by the entire world, have had and probably will continue to have a huge impact on political philosophy as well as the development of the political landscape and political culture in the world per se. What happened in the US will most probably result in a wide spectrum of reverberations, which will still be experienced years from now. The “desacralization of the American democracy”, as some political analysts called the devastation of the Capitol by rioters, will have an unpredictable, but surely negative impact on democratic processes worldwide. Some experts say that what happened in Washington in the beginning of 2021 can be perceived as an attempt to stage “Twitter Revolution 2.0” (the first one is said to have taken place in Moldova in 2009).
Well, one thing is certain: it feels like this year, even though it will continue to feel the impact of the coronavirus crisis, will bring up several essential and existential questions for humanity. However, before plunging into the uncertain global future, let’s analyze what is and could be the role of social media platforms and messaging apps in 2021. Currently, two affairs are developing in parallel: former US president Trump involved in a Twitter scandal, and Turkish president Erdogan abandoning WhatsApp. Let’s look at them one by one—as it is becoming obvious, both of them will have a considerable impact on the future of social media.
Social media were created by the “Founding Fathers” in order to bring people together, to draw different communities closer, to help people bond with each other, to give them a platform where they can communicate more easily. This ultimate goal, among others, was the driving force behind the development of Facebook—a story of how a social media website was built in order to connect Harvard students with one another, gaining thousands of users in a couple of hours. Other platforms guaranteed the freedom of expression to the public and not to public figures, generating a great influx of both information and disinformation. Google appeared in the big tech market in 1998, Wikipedia in 2001, Facebook in 2004, with Gmail and YouTube joining them in 2005. Twitter was launched in 2006, Netflix in 2007, WhatsApp in 2009, Instagram in 2010, while Waze appeared in 2011, Viber in 2012 and Telegram in 2013.
All these milestones considered, the development of the high-tech industry has aimed at one particular thing: to make us understand that, even though we lived without these opportunities before, they now appear indispensable. Let’s not forget that during the first Covid-19 lockdown, which resulted in dramatical consequences for people across the world, the role of social media and various online platforms increased dramatically. Imagine waking up tomorrow, knowing that your social media accounts have been deleted or inactive and that your messaging applications do not run anymore. This would bring about a complete social collapse—remember the latest several cases when YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook or Telegram went down worldwide due to some technical issues. Another example of the growing importance of online platforms is Netflix, one of most popular online video-streaming services, which gained more than 15 million new subscribers last year.
One thing is becoming rather certain: we can no longer imagine the informational world we live in without social media and related platforms. It appears that the slogan “Twitter. It’s what’s happening.” accurately depicts the role of this social platform in the world of social media apps. Using Twitter, for example, you can obtain the best analytical information on any developing or consumed subject in a matter of seconds, by simply entering a suitable key word or a hashtag.
Former US president Donald J. Trump used Twitter for many years as a tool for direct communication, in order to avoid conveying his messages to the public through the press. When elected president in 2016, Trump saw his account @realDonaldTrump largely increase in popularity. During his 4 years in office, Donald Trump tweeted 25,000 times, which corresponds to around 17 tweets per day. A result no other political figure in the world has and probably will never reach. Recently suspended from Twitter and other platforms, former president Trump started using a platform called Parler, and so did his supporters; in a short while, Parler was removed by Apple, Google and Amazon from their web-hosting services.
Following the well-known and tragic events in the Capitol building, the representatives of Twitter announced the suspension of the presidential personal account: “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” After 12 hours, however, his access was reinstated under the condition that he respects the Twitter Rules. A spokesperson for Twitter explained: “After the Tweets were removed and the subsequent 12-hour period expired, access to @realDonaldTrump was restored. Any future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account.”
Facebook, YouTube and Instagram followed Twitter’s example. The reaction of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared shortly: “We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect—and likely their intent—would be to provoke further violence. […] Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government. We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”
Apart from the account’s co-founder, numerous experts, world leaders, organizations and other entities expressed conflicting opinions on how Twitter treated the outgoing US president. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (deleted her Facebook page in 2019) considered the ban “as problematic”. Merkel “was concerned about Twitter permanently suspending President Donald Trump’s account. […] The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” said her spokesman Steffen Siebert. “The chancellor agreed with the practice of flagging Trump’s inaccurate posts. However, any curbs on free expression should be decided by the law and not by private companies.”
This subject has already generated a heated discussion in the German society, its political establishment as well as in the EU institutions. Lately, Germany and other European countries have grown increasingly concerned about the power of social media companies in regard to shaping public discourse. Jens Zimmermann, a member of the Social Democratic Party, serving in the German parliament, and member of the Committee on the Digital Agenda, considers that “[the Twitter ban] is problematic because we have to ask on which basis (was it made), on which laws and what does it mean for the future actions of social media platforms? We are talking about the head of state of a democratic country. […] But nevertheless, this could happen to somebody else who won an election. […] It is a problem when one person, the CEO of a company, stops a state leader reaching out to millions of people. We need to come up with regulation. And we need to be careful about what power these platforms have”.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny responded harshly to Trump ban. On his Twitter account, the politician wrote: “I think that the ban of Donald Trump on Twitter is an unacceptable act of censorship.” In his reaction, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated that “a lot of people are going to be super unhappy with West Coast high tech as the de facto arbiter of free speech”. According to the OSCE, blocking former president Trump from social media platforms stresses the importance of discussing freedom of expression on social media.
As a result, Twitter not only had to face harsh criticism worldwide, but it also has to deal with economic consequences and protect its reputation. Moreover, its shares in the stock market fell as much as 10.5% in only one day, and its many users started switching to Telegram.
Let’s now focus on the other situation, related to WhatsApp. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s media office and the country’s Defense Ministry told the press they intended to quit WhatsApp because of privacy concerns. Changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service, which will take effect from February 2021, will allow the messaging platform to share data with its parent company Facebook Inc., which does not suit the Turkish officials. In accordance with the new conditions, users must agree to the new terms, allowing more targeted advertisements, or else they risk losing access to their accounts on WhatsApp. These terms triggered a mass migration of platform’s users to other applications, such as Signal, BiP, Parler, etc.
Meanwhile, in only 72 hours, the number of Telegram users increased by 25 million (data from 12/1/21), one of them being Turkish President Erdogan himself, starting a Telegram account with his name. In its statement (data from 09/1/21), Turkcell reported a similar pattern in Turkey, with about 1 million new users joining BiP Messenger in less than 24 hours. Since 2013 when it was launched, the application has been downloaded more than 53 million times, according to Turkcell. The situation regarding TikTok, owned by a Chinese business, and the tentative to ban it in the USA also represents the subject discussed well.
Pavel Durov, CEO of Telegram, a popular app, which has been banned several times in Russia and other countries, has recently claimed that people no longer wish to exchange their private life for free services. They no longer want to be the prisoners of technological monopolies, which think, as it seems, that they can get away with anything, while their applications have a critical mass of users. Maybe this is why until today, the presidents of Russia and Belarus have not used a smart phone.
The situation, described in detail, raised several issues, included in the title of this blog, and several more that appear in the text. Answers to these fundamental questions, provided by companies and governments, will overdraw the future of social media in 2021, maybe even in 2031, who knows. For the time being, it is crystal clear that we are facing an ongoing social media revolution—a major shift from traditional platforms to new ones.
- In legal terms, how far can national governments go regarding their cooperation or noncooperation with big tech companies? What should be done and by which entities?
One thing is clear: the cooperation between national governments and big tech companies should be upgraded to a new level of interaction, on the basis of the win-win principle. Governments would end up winning in cyber and data security, while companies would win revenues and permanent reliable partners.
- What rules should govern in the world of social media: local laws (desired by certain countries), a regional or a community-driven legislation (endeavors of the EU), or an international legal base?
Regulations are needed, that is a fact. They do exist, yet today, when registering an account on a new social media platform, in 99% of cases, we skip the section “terms and conditions”. But again, this should be a result of common decisions on the level of B2G marketing. The situation in which a business regulates the public sphere will not be effective, neither will the legislative limitation imposed by the governments. This is when the two-way approach comes in handy: tech companies present their vision, governments explain their concerns and needs. This is how the relationship between money and power can and will be established. One example of exercising this power is recent: ahead of presidential elections, Uganda Communications Commission ordered all internet providers to block social media platforms and messaging apps until further notice. On the other hand, money, meaning business-driven decisions, can be used to undermine authorities, which will not last long. The question regarding international legislation, providing international legal framework for social media (the subject that I brought to public attention for the first time during a Bled Strategic Forum session on disinformation in 2019), should be taken into serious consideration by international actors, be it national governments, transnational companies, or international organizations. They must all together start rethinking the “rules of the game” in social media, which could culminate with a general provision, e.g. “Vienna Convention on social media and combating fake news”, approved on the international level.
- Why, internationally, are there so many questions linked to activities of social media companies and their user behavior?
Maybe it is just a matter of reshuffling social media markets, maybe we have found ourselves amid an era of “social media nationalism” (e.g. using national messaging apps), maybe we are dealing with a more complex international issue regarding informational security. Undoubtedly, social media have become significantly important, which cannot be overlooked. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the use of diverse messaging platforms has risen by 50%, especially in the countries gravely affected by the pandemic. This means that new times require new regulations. These regulations can be effective only when they are coordinated.
- Is what is now happening on social media platforms a matter of censorship, necessity or a question of sovereign choices?
Let’s imagine that every country will tomorrow have its own national messaging platform, which can be accessed worldwide, but which operates under national law of the respective country. Will this be a subject of international negotiations, or rather bilateral or multilateral discussions? If not, it would create chaos and serious misunderstanding. The issue concerning social media has already become part of the international agenda. However, it should be acknowledged not only by CEOs of big tech companies, but also by national leaders, politicians, diplomats, and all users of social media platforms. This being said, censorship is definitely not a solution. Yes, new regulations are required—if you are called for an interview or speak publicly, you are expected to follow ethical, moral and esthetical norms, which should also apply to the social media environment. The question of sovereign choices, in reality, lies in the dimension whether or not to use social media and comply to their terms and rules, and this choice is available to everyone.
Social media have become an important and an already indispensable part of the political agenda, not only as a source of information, but also as a channel of direct communication between politicians and citizens. In part, social media have taken over the role of the press, which is considered the forth power in the state. If the press conforms to the regulations established by the government, should not that also be the case in the world of social media?