How Western Social Media Can Do More Than Just Pay Lip Service to Uphold Freedom of Speech

October 14, 2021 Updated: October 15, 2021


Twitter’s recent banning of accounts critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is deplorable. But it also forces us to really start considering how Western social media and big tech companies can defend freedom of speech, instead of being used as tools against us by authoritarian states such as the Chinese regime.

The issue of tech-based freedom of speech platforms, and the damage they can do to free societies if left entirely unregulated, is not exactly a new one. In recent years, however, it has become even more troublesome, as authoritarian states have taken to using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even LinkedIn to wage disinformation campaigns, affect elections, split and divide a society, and in general, cause havoc.

When called upon to take proper action against authoritarian states that undermine free societies, the tech companies have had a rather consistent defense—namely that their platforms will ultimately bring greater freedom of speech, and therefore they should not be forced to take action. While it seems like an honorable argument, it’s a hollow and ignorant one, especially at this point in time. The prospect of making more money is what prevents the big tech companies from taking any real action. Mark Zuckerberg has tried to woo the Chinese regime by asking CCP leader Xi Jinping to name his unborn child back in 2015, or when he went jogging in a heavily polluted Beijing—these are images that no PR campaign will ever be able to counter. It showed Zuckerberg’s real allegiance to the CCP, and it certainly wasn’t freedom of speech.

Epoch Times Photo
Mark Zuckerberg (2nd-right) and the overseas representatives of the China Development Forum applaud the arrival of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on March 21, 2016. (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/ Pool/Getty Images)

These arguments, thoroughly debunked, are no different than when monarchists argue for keeping the monarchy because it brings undefined economic benefits, which has never actually been proven, or when business lobby groups argue against actions that counter Beijing’s economic and trade violations because they believe free trade will somehow lead to democracy, freedom of speech, and rule of law in China. We know that belief is hollow and false, but it keeps on repeating until some part of us just accepts it.

Dealing with fake news and disinformation within our societies will certainly be a long and difficult march. But when it comes to dealing with China, Russia, and other authoritarian or neo-totalitarian states that use our own tools of freedom of speech against us, the solution is actually really simple.

Take Twitter, for example. If a state blocks its people’s access to Twitter, then block the state’s access to the social media platform, including government officials. This should apply to the Chinese regime as it has officially blocked Twitter in mainland China. However, some citizens have been able to circumvent the “great firewall” and major Chinese companies can access Twitter through a government approved VPN.

Such a policy wouldn’t even have to touch upon the thorny issue of what can or cannot be said on such platforms. Instead, it would zero in on one simple question: Does the state using the platform allow its own people the same access? If not, then it’s out: access for access.

Not only would this policy add real pressure on authoritarian states to open up access to such tools for its people, but it would severely limit their abilities to use others to sow disinformation in the United States, affect outcomes in elections in the United Kingdom, or try to split and divide the European Union.

Safeguard Defenders has campaigned against China’s state broadcasters, CGTN and CCTV, and has seen them taken off the air in several countries. For China, it is a loss of prestige. But in reality, Beijing’s disinformation work is almost entirely carried out on social media, with few viewers of its stale news shows on TV. In fact, after CGTN’s license was revoked in the UK, an informant told Safeguard Defenders that the media company replaced its “social media first” policy with a “social media only” policy. It knows what really matters.

An “access for access” policy would be straightforward, fair, predictable, open, and as a bonus, rather easily applicable. No dictatorship could cry wolf, because with such an open and fair policy the outcome would be entirely on them.

Give those who block freedom for its people a simple choice, and leave that choice to them.

My greatest surprise is the fact that as an option and as a way forward, it is not even discussed. It seems, somehow, to be out of bounds, outside of people’s imaginations. Considering the resources needed in combatting bots, in seeking pedophiles and those committing cyber crimes online, implementing such a policy would be easy in comparison.

To better manage disinformation online is going to be a long and epic struggle, and at this time no one has all the answers. However, there are areas that are black and white, and while we ponder the bigger issues of disinformation, it’s a good place to start.

It’s time for our social media giants to take some actual steps to defend and promote freedom of speech, instead of merely giving us empty gestures.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Peter Dahlin
Peter Dahlin
Peter Dahlin is the founder of the NGO Safeguard Defenders and the co-founder of the Beijing-based Chinese NGO China Action (2007–2016). He is the author of “Trial By Media,” and contributor to “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared.” He lived in Beijing from 2007, until detained and placed in a secret jail in 2016, subsequently deported and banned. Prior to living in China, he worked for the Swedish government with gender equality issues, and now lives in Madrid, Spain.