Earlier this month, President Trump was banned from popular social media sites after being seen to advocate for the violent storming of the US capitol, which led to the death of five people  and at least 60 protesters being arrested. This unprecedented moment in history has led to a fierce debate about the social media’s role in modern society.

Publishers or tech firms?

Trump’s ban from social media equates to a form of censorship, leading to the question – should social media platforms be viewed as technology companies, or publishers with editorial policies?

Social media firms have argued that they are technology companies but also platforms for free speech and should not be held accountable for the content published on their sites. This argument now has seemingly little validity.

UK Health Minister, Matt Hancock, has said Trump’s social media ban is an example of tech firms exercising editorial power. If social media firms are publishers rather than tech firms, they are therefore responsible for the content on their platform and will subsequently need stricter guidelines on what content can be posted. They will no longer be exempt from libel, defamation, and other laws that traditional media, such as the press, have to follow.

Echo chambers on social media

If an individual uses social media as their only source of news, the differentiation between fact and fiction can become blurred as people tend to follow accounts and engage with content they agree with.

This is demonstrated by comparing the accounts Trump and Biden supporters follow. There is often little overlap between both demographics and as a result each user exists in an echo chamber. This effect is exacerbated by the platforms’ own algorithms whereby content is prioritised based on engagement. This will naturally align with a user’s beliefs and amplify political divides.

Under these conditions, Trump fed his followers false information on social media which instigated the riots in the Capitol, and eventually resulted in his ban. If social media firms want to be seen as technology companies, then they should not have the power to ban users and this would mean others – such as governments and trade bodies – must instead intervene to stop the spread of misinformation on the platforms.

What future role can brands play on social media?

In a recent report published by Edelman, it found that businesses have emerged as the most trusted institutions compared to NGOs, Governments and the media. It’s important that businesses use their power on social media responsibly, to inform with factual information and align themselves with social issues that are meaningful and reflect brand values.

All brand communicators share this responsibility, including influencers. In our recent whitepaper research of over 3,500 consumers, marketers, and influencers across the US, UK, and Germany, found that 41% of consumers want to see content creators take a strong social stance on important current affairs and brands can capitalise on this demand if managed wisely. 

Following Trump’s social media ban, it will be interesting to see whether businesses change the way they communicate and whether 2021 will be the year social media sites begin being considered as publishers.

Mary Keane-Dawson is Group CEO at Takumi and a MAD//Fest London Board Advisor.