Ever since Twitter suspended the account of US President Donald Trump, there have been many calls for Big Tech social-media platforms to apply the same scrutiny to foreign leaders, such as Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. This talking point posits that while Trump and others might reasonably be suspended by social-media giants, it appears hypocritical that they don't apply the same standards to others abroad. The reasons for this are multilayered.
First of all, the social-media giants' application of their own standards appears to be rapidly changing and arbitrary. The claim that various accounts violated their rules, such as inciting violence, spreading misleading information or hate speech, may be true, just as it may speak to how opaque these guidelines really are.
Because the social-media giants have never been regulated, they are not like other industries. There is no transparent explanation as to why they banned one account or another; they don't have to provide that to regulators or to customers and users. They don't have to back up the user information or provide regulators with an archive of their tweets or posts.
There is no transparent explanation as to why social-media giants ban one account or another.
While they are private companies, they are not like other industries, such as automobile manufacturers, airlines or television stations, which might be regulated in some way.
The arbitrary nature of social-media suspensions, bans and internal rules means that for all intents and purposes, companies can do what they want on a whim. Often, they do cave to social, political or economic pressure.
For instance, social-media companies sought to close down accounts that support terrorism and extremism after the rise of ISIS in 2014. By 2018, Twitter had removed more than a million pro-terrorist accounts. Studies show that there had been more than 17 million pro-ISIS tweets.
Social-media giants also suspended "millions" of bots in 2018. Last June, Twitter removed China- and Turkey-linked bot networks. In September, they went after more Russian bots. In Turkey's case, a troll army linked to the ruling party had harassed dissidents and foreigners; some 30,000 accounts were closed.
Today there are two lines of thinking about social-media giants closing down Trump's accounts and going after Parler and other platforms where pro-Trump commentators congregate. Swept up in the "purge" of Trump content are also people like Rush Limbaugh and former national security advisor Michael Flynn. The removal of far-right accounts has happened before. Alex Jones and Laura Loomer were removed by social-media giants in 2018.
This means the removal of Trump is the culmination of an attempt to reduce far-right content. How exactly such content is defined is unclear. Twitter has said it wants to be a safe place for free expression and not have abusive behavior.
There are basically two sets of guidelines underpinning these decisions, one from Facebook and the other from Twitter. Together with Google, which owns YouTube, these platforms are dominant and often appear to coordinate strategy, such as when they censored access to a New York Post story on Hunter Biden.
In the past year, Twitter has begun to label state-controlled media. But it also indicated it would keep up the accounts of foreign leaders because they relate to the "public interest." However, information judged "misleading" – sometimes by "fact-checkers" – has been flagged.
Critics note that all of these complex decisions on who to ban and label don't seem to apply to foreign governments. Twitter did censor a tweet by Iran's leader that spread misinformation about COVID vaccines. At the end of November, it refused to remove a tweet by a Chinese official that was misleading, despite Australia's complaints.
At the time, the company said the tweet was marked "sensitive" but that foreign-policy "sabre-rattling" is acceptable. The tweet in question was staged and showed a fake image of an Australian soldier with a knife to a child's neck. Misleading comments about the US election were tagged as such, but not this image. Critics wonder why.
The reason social-media giants will not ban content by foreign totalitarian governments that is misleading or incendiary is mostly because Western governments have not put the kind of public pressure on them to do so. Internal domestic politics, often written in English, are on the radar of social-media giants and are hot-button issues. At the end of the day, these are corporations that grew out of the US, so their knowledge of American politics is greater.
This is part of a general Orientalist worldview that doesn't see foreign countries or foreign politics the same as internal Western democratic politics. This kind of paternalism tends to treat hateful rhetoric by those like Iran's supreme leader as less "dangerous" than extremists inside the borders of the US. Foreign extremists are seen as more comical, even if for their own citizens their words are deadly serious.
Social-media giants see hateful rhetoric by foreigners as less outrageous than that of U.S. extremists.
Democracies have become less robust at challenging foreign dictatorship media, which has often enabled the well-endowed foreign media that are run by authoritarian regimes such as Qatar, Russia, Turkey or other countries to operate freely in the West, even as Western media and social media are sometimes restricted abroad.
The last consideration that appears to underpin the decision not to censor foreign authoritarian regimes – even the ones that spread misinformation, undermine democracy and incite – is that social-media giants also don't want to be viewed as tools of Western governments. If they cave to every demand from lawmakers in the US or Australia to censor content from China, Iran, Russia or elsewhere, then they could run the risk of being treated as hostile foreign entities abroad.
Censoring content in autocratic states could lead them to create their own social media platforms.
This would lead other countries to create their own social-media platforms, as China already has, potentially threatening the global hegemony of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
In general, social-media giants have appeared to cave more quickly to demands from governments abroad, including religious extremists in Indonesia who got an account on Instagram banned because it was devoted to gay rights. It is not uncommon for Kurdish minority accounts to be banned on social media at the behest of the authoritarian government in Ankara. These include accounts devoted solely to language and culture.
In some cases, it appears that social-media giants in the West have become tools of foreign authoritarians to crack down on freedoms.
This creates an extraordinary paradox. Companies founded in the West and that grew out of freedoms accorded them – gathering users because people wanted an online platform to express themselves – have now cut down on users in their countries of origin, while appearing to accept the guidelines imposed by various foreign regimes.
Iranian dissidents, for instance, wonder why the regime in Iran gets to have unfettered access, but they cannot. Russian dissidents wonder about the arbitrary censorship of some Western activists, while noting that Moscow seems to exploit Western reluctance to make sure dissidents in Russia have access to social media.
Alexey Navalny argues that "this precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world; in Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: 'This is just common practice. Even Trump got blocked on Twitter.'"
Lastly, that social-media giants don't put a priority on policing the misleading comments of various foreign regimes or subjecting them to fact-checking or bans for incitement, and don't help to amplify dissidents in those countries, boils down to caring less about the rights or lives of people in Iran than in the West, particularly the US.
That 1,500 Iranian protesters could be killed by the Iranian regime, and its leaders still use Western social media without restrictions, while the same giants are concerned about democracy being undermined by riots in Washington and see that as dangerous incitement, illustrates that the lives of Iranians matter less to major Western corporations.
The story is the same in Iraq: Dissidents are hunted down and killed, usually after incitement against them online by accounts that are not banned. In Turkey, every thuggish far-right media outlet, including those that post openly antisemitic content, is not suspended, but Kurdish women's-rights activists who post about cuisine or language are.
A combination of economic decisions, public pressure and paternalism underpins why major Tech Giants will not likely act against misleading incitement of authoritarian regimes but will continue to police the speech and content of people in Western democracies.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.