US: Trump’s Impeachment Trial and the Future of Online Freedom

US: Trump’s Impeachment Trial and the Future of Online Freedom - Civic Space

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Joe Biden and his administration have begun work to restore public trust in democratic processes, including emphasising the critical importance of a free and robust press. But as the impeachment trial of Donald Trump gets underway this week, ARTICLE 19 notes the immense challenges that lie ahead for the United States, its commitment to its people and its role in the wider world.

“Fighting impunity is the central pillar of combating corruption and atrocities worldwide,” says Quinn McKew, Executive Director at ARTICLE 19. “The US Senate has the chance to send a message to the world that no one is above the law. Failing this test gives carte blanche to those who exploit violence for political gains everywhere.”

The nine people on the impeachment panel are expected to argue that the violence that took place on January 6, when hundreds of people stormed the capitol building in Washington, DC, was far from a spontaneous act, and that as soon as Trump began publicly claiming the election was fraudulent, incitement to violence was inevitable, or at least probable. 

Documents to be presented to the panel, a brief spanning 80 pages, outline that some of those involved in the storming started planning violence soon after it was announced that Trump had lost the election. The evidence indicates that many people who galvanised groups to take violent action believed Trump had encouraged them to do so. 

Lawyers defending some of those charged with criminal damage have stated they will point to the language Trump used in tweets more than a week before the January 6 attack on the Capitol,  with one lawyer saying her client was “inspired by inflammatory propaganda”.

Their motivations will be a key part of the panel’s review to determine whether Trump incited groups of people to take illegal, violent action. Federal criminal cases have been filed against 185 people, and many of them cited Trump’s call for people to go to the Capitol when explaining to contacts or on social media why they travelled to Washington to take part in protests. 

Given that the majority of Republicans have said they will not endorse a move for a conviction, the panel is unlikely to secure one. However, those running the proceedings are hoping they can argue that Trump’s attack on democracy means he can be barred from holding public office again. 

It is clear that Donald Trump has future political ambitions, though it is not obvious how these intentions will take shape. He could launch his own party, giving his vast number of supporters a new home. He could build on his already substantial support among a particular faction of Republican voters who have seen a future in his form of politics. He could call for further insurrection. 

Whatever he chooses to do, his political impact will be significant. This is true in terms of “straight” politics, but also when it comes to social media and how it shapes the political environment,  and reflects on it. 

Facebook to Rule on Trump Ban

Chief among the challenges before the Biden administration will be strengthening free speech online and determining who is allowed to make tough decisions about what is illegal and what constitutes incitement to violence. The damage caused by President Trump’s sustained attack on the media and his own use of social media will be the subject of much scrutiny, and so too will the power that big tech companies wield.

Facebook’s Oversight Board, which consists of journalists, campaigners and educators, will soon be ruling on whether its ban on President Trump’s account will be permanent — and that decision will be crucial to the future of online speech. The decision will be a verdict on Trump, but also set a precedent for other politicians and leaders around the world. Facebook has stated that it will follow the board’s decisions on content removal, even if the board rules to overturn previous decisions the social media platform has taken. 

But critics of the process say it’s not clear whether Facebook will be looking at Trump’s posts in general, and not just what he shared specifically on January 6. They question the true aim of the process. Is it to determine whether Trump should be held accountable or has it been designed to strengthen Facebook’s position as a monopoly power online? 

ARTICLE 19 has set out these difficult questions before. Should big companies really be put in charge of what we can and can’t say? In the wake of Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, several world leaders spoke out against the move, urging caution in letting these companies have such overarching power. 

Governments, however, need to operate in the bounds of international law as well. In its advocacy for transparency and due process in these matters, ARTICLE 19 has consistently promoted the introduction of Social Media Councils made up of independent experts and multi-stakeholder bodies. Media companies should be encouraged to be transparent and thorough in explaining their decisions. Crucially, content moderation should be guided by human rights standards, helping to promote a greater global equality in terms of access to information and free speech online.

Since the election in November, there has been much talk of healing the divisions in the United States. But most realists know that process will be long and unwieldy, if it’s even possible at all. Given this, it’s vital that the US takes responsible steps when deciding about the future of free speech in the country, decisions that will also have an impact on how the country re-engages with the international community. Tackling difficult questions about incitement to violence, the removal of criminal content, and about who makes the decisions and how those decisions are reached will not only help shape the future of online freedom in the US, it will have reverberations in the wider, interconnected world.