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Leaders in Mexico and Poland look to curb power of social media giants after Trump bans

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at his daily morning news conference in Mexico City on Dec 18. (Marco Ugarte/AP)

In the aftermath of President Trump’s banishment from social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, a handful of world leaders have expressed alarm over the power of private companies to decide if and when to ban elected leaders from key parts of the public arena.

At least two ruling governments — on the left wing in Mexico and the right in Poland — have since suggested pursuing policies to prevent what happened to Trump.

Trump ban by social media companies came after years of accommodation for world leaders who pushed the line

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Thursday in a daily briefing shared on social media that his government would reach out to other G-20 nations to seek a joint proposal on such bans, which he compared to the “Spanish Inquisition.”

“I can tell you that at the first G-20 meeting we have, I am going to make a proposal on this issue,” López Obrador said, referring to a meeting of the leaders of the world’s top 20 economies scheduled for May in Rome.

In Poland, meanwhile, the conservative-led government is pushing a draft “Freedom of Speech” law, first announced last month, that would regulate speech restrictions on social media.

“The owners of social media networks cannot operate above the law,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “That is why we will do everything to define the frame of operations of Facebook, Twitter, Instargram [sic] and other similar platforms.”

Without mentioning Trump, Morawiecki likened the power of the social media companies to state control in the country during the Communist era. Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s deputy minister of justice, said in an interview this week that the Trump bans “could even be called censorship.”

Under the Polish draft law, users would be able to petition social media companies to restore removed content if it could not be shown to violate Polish law.

The specifics of López Obrador’s plan were not immediately clear, though the Mexican president said he had instructed officials to look into whether a state-run social network could be created “without censorship.”

The hope in both Mexico and Poland is for an international coalition to push back against the power of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, two of the largely U.S.-based companies that made the decision to ban Trump from their platforms over claims he incited violence at the U.S. Capitol last week.

Both López Obrador and Morawiecki suggested that they would seek coordination with other countries and the European Union.

David Kaye, a professor of law at the University of California at Irvine and former U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, said that while national regulation efforts might succeed, he thought it would be hard for Mexico and Poland to make a case for international action.

“Globally, there is much less consensus,” Kaye said in an email, adding that if López Obrador were to take his proposals to the G-20, “I think those discussions will quickly become mired in areas of disagreement.”

Kaye added that both countries would likely face questions about their own handling of freedom of speech in the light of lingering scandals in Mexico about the use of spyware to track journalists and activists and ongoing controversy about alleged crackdowns on free media and the independence of the judiciary in Poland.

“All of these demands for the companies not to regulate public officials’ speech are deeply ironic, if not hypocritical,” Kaye said.

Facebook said last week that its decision to ban Trump was the product of exceptional circumstances. “We ... believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote. “The current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

In an interview with The Washington Post this week, the E.U.’s top digital enforcer said that the unusual nature of the situation may have justified the action against Trump.

E.U.’s top digital enforcer says Twitter’s Trump ban was response to ‘extreme situation’

“This is, of course, the most extreme of extreme situations, that the president of the United States is inciting people to go toward Congress,” European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager said. “So I completely accept that this is an extreme situation, and lines have been crossed.”

However, a number of world leaders, including some close to Trump and some more skeptical of him, have expressed concern about the social media companies’ moves.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week that the permanent suspension of Trump’s social media accounts was a “problematic” restriction on freedom of speech, according to her spokesman.

“This fundamental right can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators — not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms,” Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin on Monday.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro — a key Trump ally — has promoted rival social media companies like Parler and Telegram.

Political activists like Russia’s Alexei Navalny and China’s Ai Weiwei have also criticized the moves against Trump, comparing it to the censorship they have seen in authoritarian countries, while Iranian activists have suggested that if Trump is banned for inciting violence, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, should be, too.

The Mexican and Polish governments have strong relations with Trump, with López Obrador holding off on congratulating President-elect Joe Biden until more than a month after the November election and Poland offering to host a U.S. military base called “Fort Trump.”

Kaye said that while there were legitimate global arguments about regulation of social media, the timing and contexts of the moves raised concerns about their motives.

“These governments have been demanding the companies take strong action against hate speech and incitement for years,” Kaye said. “Now they do, in the context of an insurrection essentially or at least arguably promoted by the President of the United States, and they push back against it.”