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On January 27, 2021, the Inter-American Dialogue partnered with Luminate to host the webinar “Deplatforming Trump – Implications for Latin America.” The panel discussed regulation and moderation of online content and speech, its specific challenges in Latin America, and possible regulatory approaches that can ensure that digital environments uphold democratic norms and abide by international human rights standards. The webinar featured opening remarks from Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, moderation from Gabriela Hadid, principal at Luminate, and analysis from Pedro Vaca, special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Vanessa Rubio, professor in practice at LSE and former Senator and deputy minister of Mexico, Mariana Valente, director of InternetLab, and Javier Pallero, global policy director at Access Now.
Camilleri began the conversation by outlining the specific context that led to former US President Donald Trump’s “deplatforming.” Following the violent insurrection in Washington, DC on January 6, Trump was “permanently suspended” from Twitter and banned from several other social media platforms, which argued that his words had incited the Capitol riot and had the potential to cause further harm. The unprecedented deplatforming of a sitting US president sparked international conversations on the power that private social media companies have to shape public debate. While defenders of the decision argued that deplatforming is effective and necessary to limit extremism and disinformation, critics argued that the decision was censorship, and could provide a pretext for authoritarian governments to limit online speech.
All the panelists addressed the question of who is or should be a legitimate actor on these types of regulatory decisions. Pallero argued that who owns and monitors media is not a new issue, but that private companies increasingly have an expanded role in limiting public debate due to the ongoing prominence of social media companies. Valente further explained that we are entering a “third wave of platform regulation,” that is more complex and tries to understand the Internet as it is today: “pervasive and concentrated but numerical and geopolitical.” Decisions on content moderation have to take these complexities into account and cannot be solved solely by the platforms or by governments. Rubio argued that a regulatory approach should avoid a “power game” where governments and companies unilaterally regulate and retaliate against each other, without the participation of civil society. Pallero followed up by explaining that governments are obligated under international treaties to comply with international human rights standards such as freedom of expression. While private companies are not bound by these principles, they nonetheless can choose to collaborate proactively with governments to integrate human rights responsibilities into their terms of service and company philosophy. Rubio noted that crafting consensus on general standards of content moderation is done through dialogue between different stakeholders. While this dialogue cannot create an internationally binding instrument, she advocated for a multilateral approach that has been successful in other areas, such as the creation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The panelists also discussed the specific challenges that Latin America faces in these broader debates. Given that most of these digital platform companies are based in North America and don’t have representation across Latin America, Vaca and Valente expressed their concern that platforms won’t be able to make informed decisions if they choose to intervene in a specific country’s political disagreements, especially during elections. On the government side, the speakers acknowledged that advocating for broad, multi-sectorial conversations that involve civil society are most applicable to countries with robust democracies, which is not the case in the entire region. Vaca explained that cases such as Perozo vs Venezuela or Ríos vs Venezuela have set a precedent within the inter-American system for the protection of freedom of speech, and that, despite challenges from authoritarian governments, there is a rich history of dialogue within this system that have contributed to positive change. Authoritarian governments can also pose specific problems for platforms and their content moderation. Pallero explained that Access Now recommends that platforms resist requests for information from governments that violate the rights of its users while acknowledging the dilemma that platforms face to try to comply with diverse standards and regulations.
Issues with online speech are a reflection of the deterioration of democratic norms around the region. Vaca and Rubio explained that these debates are occurring at an “inflection point” where polarization is seemingly favored over dialogue, and the “objective is to defeat, and not to listen.” Vaca warned that deplatforming is an imperfect solution, because it displaces violent speech rather than aiming to resolve it. He stressed the importance of paying attention to conversations that are also occurring outside of digital environments, as well as advocating for broader digital literacy programs that teach citizens how to understand and manage their role within online platforms. Rubio agreed that violent and anti-democratic speech is “not a problem inherent to social media, but inherent to humans,” yet “the space that reflects human problems currently does not have enough regulation that may be necessary.” It is important to demand that government regulation decisions are transparent and a product of democratic consensus. Pallero noted that the justice system is imperfect in many countries in the region, which makes this transparency all the more necessary.
Overall, the panelists agreed that there are no universally applicable solutions to issues surrounding content moderation, but that there are basic principles that both private companies and governments should adhere to in order to ensure compliance with international human rights standards. Hadid concluded that the overarching theme of the discussion was “complexity,” and that Trump’s deplatforming presents a unique and salient opportunity to evaluate how digital platforms can affect public debates, for better or for worse.