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Opinion | The Great Social Media Discourse

Hypocrisy of free speech

As Joseph Biden took the oath of office in the US on Wednesday (Jan. 20), Philip Leung shares his insights on the social influence of technology and social media, drawing on parallels between the Trump chaos and the HK riots of 2019-2020.

By Philip Leung

Twitter and Facebook permanently suspended former US President Donald Trump from their platforms two days after the fatal storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. They cited severe policy violations after he posted inflammatory messages on January 6, 2021 inciting the siege.

Meanwhile, several US internet companies denied far-right microblogging service Parler their services after accusations that it was used to coordinate the Capitol storm-ing. Apple and Google removed Parler's mobile app from their app stores when Amazon Web Services canceled its hosting services on January 10, and Parler went offline. Interestingly, in the wake of the account suspensions, Parler sued Amazon after it pulled its hosting support.

Since 2015, Mr. Trump has repeatedly violated the rules of social media platforms, often with impunity.

Posts by an American president are normally newsworthy. Moreover, like ordinary folks Mr. Trump's freedom of speech is allegedly covered by First Amendment rights. On the other hand, his role in the Capitol calamity was the last straw. The US president had incited a deadly assault on democracy. Five people were dead, and there was a real and imminent risk of continual violence. Trump had crossed a crucial red line. Along with the mass resignations from his cabinet, his account suspension by various social media services resulted from a rude awakening. Politics aside, they now realize they must immediately remove Trump's online megaphones, or risk dire legal, social and business consequences.

America's First Amendment Rights

There are popular claims that these social media suspensions have violated First Amendment rights. But, have they?

As far as I can see, the answer is "Not really". Since these business entities are not state actors, their commercial decisions regulating online messaging are not covered by the First Amendment. These online platforms and technology companies are free to decide whether or not they wish to disseminate the messages posted by someone else, including their country's president.

This reflects a peculiar aspect of the altercations over the actions of these social media platforms. Conservatives have consistently advocated letting the free market govern who gets what information, as well as what gets produced, disseminated and consumed. Yet, these very conservatives are now arguing that the state must enter and regulate the commercial providers who have suspended service. This is probably an argument they cannot win. Liberals, on the other hand, are happy to see the use of precisely that power against far-right radicals who are seen as threatening the existing law and order.

In a brave new world of internet technology, suspending accounts is a necessary fix, but not sufficient. Radicals will distrust mainstream social media platforms, and simply retreat deeper into their echo chambers and communication bubbles.

Common Thread

A lot of parallels can be drawn between the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol and a similar attack on the HKSAR Legislative Council on July 1, 2019 — and in fact, between the chaos in Trump's final year in office and the Hong Kong riots of 2019-2020.

In those exhausting riots in Hong Kong, the wanton behavior of rioters and violent protesters have inflicted serious devastation to Hong Kong's infrastructure, economy, our residents' livelihood and our international reputation.

The elites in Hong Kong, as anywhere, are at the top of the social, economic, political and intellectual totem pole. In their respective roles as government bureaucrats, business leaders, legislators, journalists, academics, judges or tycoons, the elites are supposed to be custodians of our community, as well as gatekeepers for the institutions and the smooth functioning of the city. That is an unspoken social contract everyone has accepted. But technology has driven a subtle but substantial change to that contract. Anybody with access to the internet can publish a message on Telegram, WhatsApp or WeChat, and corner quasi-immediate attention even if the message is based on fake news or an outright lie. This change undermined the authority of the elites. It created a power vacuum of sorts, which populists and extremists moved in to fill.

In the past, our elites, as well as the silent majority, have been largely able to keep the populists within acceptable limits, correct the fake news, and call out the liars' inconsistencies and false claims. Nowadays, however, their feeble voices are effectively drowned out by the tsunami of online noise and sound bites. Hong Kong citizens - especially the younger generation - are increasingly getting almost all their news from social media. They play into the hands of a small number of neo-journalists who habitually post "news" to support and justify existing biases.

Therefore, fake news and distorted "truths" proliferate. Taking comfort in their respective echo chambers and news bubbles, many Hong Kong youths seldom fact-check the information they receive. They conveniently let the falsehood snowball by forwarding it. Worse, they immediately take action.

The proliferation of online rumors is a common thread between the Hong Kong riots and the US Capitol siege. Hong Kong populists, for example, started online rumors that three protesters had been killed after anti-riot police charged onto a train at the Prince Edward MTR subway station on August 31, 2019. Before the MTR Corp. and government officials could release screenshots of security footage to quash the rumors, online "news" about the deaths went viral. Populists even released names of the victims and claimed that their bodies had been burned in the station. Of course this fake news stirred up an even bigger riot the day after.

The Irony of Technology

Some of Hong Kong's core values such as the free flow of information and freedom of expression are precisely what have deranged our social fabric. This is ironic. The radical protesters' pursuit of freedom to express their opinions has denied others the freedom to live safely and peacefully. It has also destroyed the acceptance of diversity, the tolerance of different opinions, as well as the respect for the rights of fellow citizens to make a living.

As a result, Hong Kong society during the 2019-2020 riot has descended into severe polarization and bigotry. And alas, also into unvarnished violence by a small number of rioters. Law and order only began to recover after the June 30, 2020 enactment of the HK National Security Law.

Unfortunately, in a large crowd of protesters like those seen in the Hong Kong riots, populism offers a quick and hypnotic fix. This deprives individuals of the capacity to think and reason. Never mind being civil and tolerant of fellow citizens, goes the crowd-think. Behave as nasty as you really want towards people who belong to the other camp. These other people are our mortal enemies; and like in a video game, these mortal enemies must be annihilated even at huge costs or else it's "Game Over". And there is no need for logic and common sense either. It is rightful to attack the world's most restrained police force with makeshift deadly weapons and firebombs while simultaneously blaming this police force for brutality. Apparently, all the rioters care about is that they now have a common enemy to target, to blame, and on which to unleash their unchecked wrath.

Large swathes of the people in America, and much of the West, are generally unable to understand or value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the manner which true democracy requires. The US Capitol violence has laid bare this soft underbelly. As we also witness in countless self-proclaimed democracies, the same conclusions can also be applied anywhere social media platforms operate freely without restrain. To the extent that the populists and extremists can assert with minimal impunity, they will interpret events in distorting and self-fulfilling ways. As a result, they seriously damage the very core values, democratic practices and institutions which they claim they are defending.

Internet Detox?

I recently came across a documentary "Post-epidemic Era", produced by Japanese di-rector Ryo Takeuchi on how China successfully tackled Covid-19. The film outlined the stark contrast with countries such as Japan or the US, countries regarded as advanced in technology and healthcare. As a consequence of China's success, it became the only big country with positive GDP growth in 2020. Unfortunately, the lessons the world can learn here are lost on the West due to narrow-minded anti-China sentiments which populists foment and amplify through the internet.

Social networking and internet technology have undeniably drawn people closer. The unfortunate corollary, however, is that they have also facilitated the spread of bigotry and polarization. It is incumbent on the elites of civil society to rid the social media of this toxic downside, and strive towards a de-contaminated environment.

Philip Leung is a technology executive, with 40 years of experience in building businesses across geographic regions, particularly Silicon-Valley companies entering China and Chinese enterprises going global.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

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