For weeks now, Chinese officials have been tweeting allegations that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is hiding information about COVID-19 patient zero. At the same time, U.S. politicians have been speculating that the Chinese Communist Party purposely did not disclose the true numbers of those affected with COVID-19. In response to this, in late March, GOP lawmakers Sen. Ben Sasse and Rep. Mike Gallagher published a letter calling on Twitter to ban the Chinese Communist Party from its platform.
Since then, such calls have continued, including from Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, who in a press release earlier this week asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to step in and investigate the Chinese Communist Party’s “coronavirus coverup.” He also sent a letter to the CEOs of Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook urging them to remove CCP accounts because they are trafficking in disinformation. Similarly, in an interview with Voice of America, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding said, “Every single day, [the People’s Liberation Army] and other folks that are being paid specifically by the Chinese Communist Party to do propaganda and influence are in our midst.” He continued, “If we won’t allow them physically to be on our soil to coerce our citizens, then why would we ever allow them in our networks and in our data?”
Already overwhelmed with the sheer volume of false information, conspiracies, and other harmful content surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, social media platforms have once again found themselves in the difficult situation of moderating political content. Only this time they’re stuck between two superpowers vying for narrative spin over the novel coronavirus. There are no easy answers. But by urging platforms to boot CCP accounts, lawmakers are engaging in something that is not only a potential infringement on the First Amendment but also risks reducing information flows between countries, further balkanizing the internet. Enforcing such digital borders would be incredibly difficult, requiring changes that contravene the values of a free and open internet.
This comes at a time when there are sweeping changes across platform companies to tamp down misinformation about COVID-19. In a joint statement in mid-March, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube stated that they will combine efforts on COVID-19 to remove fraud and misinformation, elevate “authoritative content,” and share updates from government health agencies. Over the past week, we have seen these policies implemented. Twitter removed tweets from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Rudy Giuliani, and Charlie Kirk, president of Turning Point USA, for claiming that hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID-19. Twitter also removed content—again promoting unproven treatments for COVID-19—from President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, in a reversal of a prior policy to preserve the tweets of world leaders.
False statements that could lead to harm should be taken down, as should content that violates a platform’s terms of service or content policies. Twitter and Facebook have previously removed networks of coordinated accounts that they attribute to China, Iran, and Russia for violating their policies on “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Should an individual account continually violate the platform’s policies, removal is certainly warranted. But a blanket ban on politicians and diplomats from countries whose politics or ideology we disagree with, however, is not. Ultimately, if Twitter and other social media companies are not willing to hold U.S. politicians to the same standards—that is, choosing to moderate content based on political preference instead—the digital border wars we are already facing will expand.
First, banning the CCP from Twitter or Facebook would likely add to the intensifying tit-for-tat media war that has resulted in both China and the United States removing journalists from their nations. An expulsion of Chinese diplomats and state media from Twitter may very well end up as the catalyst needed to expel more Western journalists.
Second, it sets a precedent for other states to do the same, demanding that platforms remove what they deem to be harmful foreign propaganda. Already, around the world, governments are mulling over legislation that would criminalize and censor “fake news,” which risks being selectively used against political opponents.
Third, by forcing platforms to ban foreign governments, a double standard quickly emerges. In their letter to Twitter, Sasse and Gallagher claim that some of the CCP-affiliated accounts have used the platform to spread lies and conspiracy theories, confusing the public about COVID-19. If that is the standard with which Twitter should remove entire accounts, then how should Twitter deal with President Donald Trump? In 2019, for example, Trump retweeted a conspiracy alleging the Clintons were involved in a number of deaths. This behavior is not an isolated event. Becca Lewis, a researcher who studies far-right online subcultures, said Trump’s Twitter account is a “powerful propaganda tool.” If Twitter were to start moderating content based on perceptions of propaganda, then how should it deal with our own leaders, not to mention other nations’ diplomats?
Lastly, allowing the CCP to engage on Twitter or other social media platforms may also have its benefits. Indeed, some of the party’s content is propaganda. After all, its members are their nation’s spokespeople and as diplomats are expected to promote Chinese interests. One would expect the same with an American diplomat. But these accounts can be useful by revealing elite splits. When the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted conspiracy theories that COVID-19 originated in the United States, China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, broke with his fellow diplomat by calling the spread of such theories “crazy.” He also said, “Such speculation will help nobody. It’s very harmful.” This rebuke signals a disagreement among top leadership. If platforms were to wholesale ban the CCP, such differences would be difficult to surface. In addition, netizens are able to contradict and criticize diplomats like never before, indicating that counterspeech might be an important resource for activists with limited direct engagement with Chinese diplomats.
Certainly, the CCP and some of its more fervent supporters have engaged in disinformation, influence operations, and other subversive means to try to shift public opinion. Most recently, ProPublica released a report chronicling 10,000 suspected covert accounts on Twitter amplifying Chinese propaganda using hacked accounts. Taiwan’s election in January was also another target of Chinese influence operations. Recently too, the Hong Kong protests were hit with Chinese-linked disinformation campaigns with the apparent goal of undermining sympathy for the Hong Kong protesters. Such operations, whether operated by the CCP or its supporters, are antithetical to democracy and lead to self-censorship, harassment, and a misinformed public.
Yet removing accounts simply for being affiliated with the CCP from social media platforms does little to prevent those harms. Instead, forcing private companies to pick sides would threaten the democratic values that we claim to cherish, such as free and open communication, as nation-states take their geopolitical fights to social media. The digital rights organization Article 19 has warned that any attempts to police the truth would “create a powerful instrument to control journalistic activities.” And in a 2017 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News,” Disinformation, and Propaganda, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression along with other representatives from international organizations stated that intermediaries should adopt policies “based on objectively justifiable criteria rather than ideological or political goals.” Inconsistent application of terms of service may otherwise lead to false positives and undue censorship. In 2019, for example, a “routine” sweep of CCP bots on Twitter accidentally removed more than 1,000 anti-CCP accounts.
Yielding to the GOP lawmakers to remove the CCP would be extraordinary and would push forward the agenda of those seeking to replicate national borders online. The effect will not be a public sphere free of authoritarian propaganda but a splinternet that may not only make communicating more difficult but give illiberal regimes an excuse to push for a “sovereign internet” as they selectively censor unwanted content and individuals. The collateral damage from this information war may be the very things we’re trying to protect: freedom of expression, open communications, and the promotion of civil rights. Already around the world, the pandemic is being used as a pretext to crack down on freedom of expression.
Twitter and other social media platforms did not design their products knowing that presidents and other high-level government officials would use it to dunk on one another. And yet, here we are in an unprecedented paradox: We need to hear from world leaders, but it must be tempered with a fair amount of skepticism and fact-checking. Perhaps, it is time to supplement politicians’ blue checks and give them their own special icons that denote their status, such as the classical building emoji matched with the flag of their nation. Or better yet, find ways for users to circumvent censorship in China where it is banned (instead of training Chinese officials on how best to use the platform); respond to and consult with users, activists, and other civil society in China (many of whom have been targeted for their use of the platform); and work toward objective and transparent enforcement of platforms’ content policies. And in cases where false or misleading content is being shared, Twitter should absolutely enforce its terms of service, flagging the content as false or removing if necessary. In addition, Twitter should remove the ability for users, especially political elites, to hide replies they dislike.
Over the past decade, social media has become a default global communications system. At the very least, social media companies must enforce their terms of service, including removing misinformation, across all strata of the social hierarchy, especially the rich and powerful. Instead of imposing digital borders, social media companies need to focus their moderation efforts on elite speech. But, if it is the case that social media companies do start banning politicians for falsehoods and propaganda, then they should begin with the U.S. Anything less would be 🐃💩.