World leaders behaving badly on social media could be the undoing of some platforms, but a business model for others.
Last week Facebook announced it was banning 20 individuals and organisations from Myanmar, including Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, for their role in perpetrating suspected crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
The move comes after a United Nations investigation into crimes against humanity and possible genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar directly criticised Facebook for not doing enough to prevent the use of its platform to spread hatred against the minority group.
“Although improved in recent months, Facebook’s response has been slow and ineffective,” the report found. “The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined.”
A Facebook spokesperson said that this was the first time Facebook has banned a country’s military or political officials. This is actually not correct, but given Facebook’s inconsistent and sometimes contradictory history when it comes to moderating political leaders on its platform, perhaps it’s not surprising that even they themselves are a little confused.
In late 2017, the company banned Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov from both Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook also owns. Kadyrov has become infamous for his brutally violent repression of both his political opponents and his own people, including the systematic persecution, detention and alleged torture of LGBT people. He is also a prolific social media user, frequently posting pictures of his family and his workouts. His Instagram account achieved global fame in 2016 when comedian John Oliver did a segment on Kadyrov’s post about his missing cat.
Facebook said that it banned Kadyrov in December 2017 because Kadyrov had just been added to a US sanctions list. “For this reason, Facebook has a legal obligation to disable these accounts,” the company said in a statement.
Given the number of sanctioned individuals and leaders accused of human rights abuses who are still on their platforms, however, Facebook’s decisions to ban Kadyrov and Myanmar’s military officials seems inconsistent and arbitrary. Syria’s Bashar al Assad is on the same sanction list as Kadyrov yet he has an active Instagram account, as does Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, who the US has labelled a ‘dictator’ and levelled sanctions against in 2017.
In a further inconsistency, Facebook appears to have at least partially reversed its decision – as of August 2018, Kadyrov’s Instagram is active again. It is unclear whether assorted ‘Ramzan Kadyrov’ Facebook pages are officially connected with Kadyrov himself.
Mangue accidentally alerted investigators to his corruption by flaunting his lavish lifestyle on Instagram.
While you’d think leaders embezzling money from their governments would want to keep it on the down low, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, accidentally alerted investigators to his corruption by flaunting his lavish lifestyle on Instagram. In 2017, a French court sentenced the vice president (who happens to also be the son of the president) for embezzlement, money-laundering, corruption and abuse of trust. Mangue’s Instagram account provided ample evidence of his lavish lifestyle, including his 18 luxury cars and multimillion dollar properties around the world.
Instagram Playboy: Vice President of Equatorial Guinea. Copyright 2017, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.
Facebook and Instagram are not the only social media platforms to struggle with their new political role. It would be impossible to have this discussion without mentioning the proverbial bull in the china shop – Donald Trump.
Twitter has faced sustained criticism from some quarters over its failure to ban US President Donald Trump from its platform, despite incendiary tweets which appear to violate Twitter’s terms of service. In a painfully awkward blog post (the word “vaguebooking” comes to mind), Twitter tried to address the controversy without ever naming Trump directly, arguing that “blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets would hide important information people should be able to see and debate.”
"He's having a real-time conversation with the world," Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told CNN. "And I think that's something we should learn from." Twitter has also asserted that having Trump on Twitter is "good" and that "the more that happens, the better we are going to be at showing what’s going on in the world."
Twitter’s attempts to solve the quandaries of @realDonaldTrump may only end up causing it more problems in the long run, however. In a move which was widely seen as an effort to accommodate Trump’s tweets, in December 2017 Twitter exempted military and government entities from its abuse policy.
This exemption doesn’t just give Trump a get out of jail free card; it provides a broad umbrella for a huge range of actors, including Myanmar’s military leaders. In the days since he was banned from Facebook, the activity on General Min Aung Hlaing’s Twitter account has increased dramatically.
There are no simple solutions to the problem of private companies regulating the speech of political leaders on their platforms. There are obvious flaws in both Facebook’s inconsistent practices of banning problematic leaders, and Twitter’s apparent desire to sidestep the issue altogether by exempting political leaders from its abuse policies.
What the case of Facebook and the Myanmar generals makes clear, however, is that the policies and practices applied by social media platforms online have real-world consequences. For some people, the question of whether political leaders should be free to say whatever they want on social media is now literally a matter of life or death.
Elise Thomas is a freelance contributor to The Feed.