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What’s up in the European Parliament? A Need for democratic scrutiny of social media platforms?

Trump became the first US president to be canceled by Silicon Valley. After years of defending his presence on their platforms, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media networks decided that the assault on the Capitol had left them no choice but to suspend his accounts — in Twitter’s case, permanently. Twitter claimed that the analysis of Mr. Trump’s tweets led to the following conclusion: the former US President repeatedly violated Twitter rules, inciting American citizens to violent acts and behaviour. What happened to Mr. Trump is a phenomenon called deplatforming: “The action or practice of preventing someone holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a forum or debate, especially by blocking them on a particular website”, or a social media network.

EU legislators criticised some unilateral decisions taken by social media platforms, and asked for a greater European public control on such matters, in order to guarantee the freedom of expression to all EU citizens, and to all people in general.

During the February plenary (February 8th-13th), in the European Parliament the topics of the democratic scrutiny of social media platforms, and the protection of fundamental rights were discussed. The debate was opened by Mrs. Zacarias, the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs, who represented the EU Council. In her speech she underlined the fragility that democracy and democratic values are experiencing, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Disinformation and hate speeches are real threats to democracy, and are being spread through social media networks, becoming more powerful day after day. Mrs. Zacarias likened social media to public agoras, to highlight the enormous power that social media platforms have in shaping the public debate. But she also remarked the major existing difference between social media platforms and agoras: the rules are different: what is illegal offline is not always illegal online. In this regard, Commissioner Jorouvá, in her speech, reminded that offline and online are not two different worlds, but two coexisting realities. Thus, the two must be subject to the same norms and rules: what is illegal offline, must be illegal online, without any exception.

The EU Commission proposed the DSA (The Digital Services Act), in December 2020. This package contemplated a set of norms and a co-regulation approach with social media platforms, so as to ensure an easier management of harmful and/or illicit contents on social media. These measures are not only addressing problems such as disinformation, but are also meant to favour greater transparency of the decision-making processes based on algorithms.

Up to now, the EU adopted a self-regulatory approach towards the moderation of harmful contents online. The debate in the EP was extremely interesting, and can be summed up in one word: regulation. However, many MEPs speeches were based, and recalled the freedom of expression, a fundamental right enshrined in several European Treaties and declarations. They also called for a stronger regulation of social media, as “in a democracy the power to decide between legal and illegal is in the hands of a public, legal authority”; and cannot be exercised by private companies, as social media networks.

The Secretary of State Zacarias concluded: “We expect a greater involvement of social media platforms in this common struggle. The power of formulating rules and surveilling their implementation, as well as the final decision concerning the legality of a content or an action, lies on EU public institutions”. Commissioner Jurouvá, in line with Mrs. Zacarias considerations, stated: “It is time to deliver and take action. Being ambitious is necessary: we cannot undergo rules established by privates anymore, we must start dictating them at a European level”.

Considering the strong importance given to the topic by the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council, it is likely that concrete actions will be taken in the upcoming future, in order to ensure EU citizens’ protection of their fundamental rights when it comes to social media.


Author: Giulia Grandin


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