Pacific Dialogue
Free speech?
By Liang Xiao  ·  2022-03-14  ·   Source: NO.11 MARCH 17, 2022
A screen shot dated February 26 shows how the access to a Russian state website is denied. Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said Russia has been under sustained cyberattacks since the conflict with Ukraine started (XINHUA)

When Russia announced it would be blocking access to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many across the West were left dismayed and criticized Russia for its "veto" on freedom of speech. Ironically, over the past years, those same platforms have blocked or restricted their fair share of "non-conformist" accounts. 

One in particular stands out from this crowd. It occurred in January 2021, when Twitter temporarily restricted Russia's COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V account due to "unusual activity," triggering strong objections from the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Soon after, the account was restored, but Twitter did not give any further explanation. Many speculated the underlying cause may have been the account's name bore too big a similarity to that of Russian news agency Sputnik, aka the actual target.

Fact is that's just what the social media behemoth and the likes have long been known to do—and everybody's gotten used to it. The question worth pondering here is why would Twitter, which proclaims that defending and respecting the user's voice is a core value, arbitrarily ban accounts for political reasons?

Popular belief holds that established media outlets with different positions can, and will, conduct tit-for-tat battles in the arena of public opinion; audiences with common sense can make up their own minds. Social media, however, is quite the different beast.

For many people, these platforms in se do not generate opinions, but bring together voices from all four corners of the globe to form a borderless public opinion pitch, free for all. The big problem is that as these platforms continue to grow and gradually replace traditional media as the main channel for the public to obtain information, they may very well have a significant impact on the international situation and domestic politics alike.

Obviously, social media is by no means neutral and objective. In addition to direct bans, many platforms also come with black markers that can control public opinion.

For instance, they label Chinese and Russian media accounts as "state-controlled," implying that these accounts are tools for political manipulation and can never be trusted; they played a disgraceful role in unrests worldwide, just think of the riots in China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 2019, where tweets inciting violence and advocating divisiveness were encouraged, yet any clarification of the facts was suppressed; they claimed to worship the journalistic truth and freedom of speech, but selectively blinded its practice. In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, these platforms have stated they will reinforce their news authenticity verification, but that promise often seems to cater to the Western favor.

Those in disagreement with the aforementioned often point to the case of Twitter blocking former U.S. President Donald Trump, with over 88 million followers, to prove that social media platforms are equal for all. But the disappearance of Trump from social media on the grounds of allegedly inciting riots only better illustrates the double standards of these platforms: Why don't morality and conscience prevail when the victims are people from regions they disapprove of?

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." It is the most classic interpretation of freedom of speech. In today's era of social media in the "free world," free speech should perhaps come with a new disclaimer, something along the lines of "I disapprove of what you say, but I will give you a platform to say it."

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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