By Victor Ikem

It was Marshal McLuhan, a Canadian researcher, and renowned media theorist who, through his painstaking study on the nature of evolving mass media technology, and the rapid evolution of same, coined the word “global village” to explain how through the advancement in media technology the world was being transformed into an interconnected and a  market place of information and ideas.

There was no Twitter at this time in 1961 when McLuhan came through with these thoughts. The Global Village square is a concept that explains a universal space of ideas in which McLuhan said the world was evolving. In his views, the globe was becoming a small entity enabled by the advancement in modern communication technologies, at the time of his research. Fast-forward to 2020, and McLuhan’s ideas cannot be any truer than when it was first presented.

Born Herbert Marshall McLuhan in Edmonton on 21 July 1911, the renowned communication theorist was to die on 31 December 1980 in Toronto, Canada. Through his academic works, he became a Professor of English at the University of Toronto and was to become famous during the 1960s for his studies of the effects of mass media on thought and behavior.

The 2020 US election has set a new precedent on how free speech has become a fundamental burden in the face of free and uninhibited (social) media access, leveraging the advancement in new media technology. In contrast with the traditional media where thorough checks are done using the gatekeeping framework, the social or new media ecosystem is democratic to the extent that there exists no restraint or gatekeeping or any form of control or barrier to information flow.

With the exponential growth of the new media technology and mobile telephone, the power of information management has shifted from the hands of trained editors in the big media conglomerates into the hands of independent (untrained in news management) individuals who are Silicon Valley skilled technology experts and whiz kids. In turn, they have through different tools created and enabled a vast amount of media platforms that facilitate individuals to connect and share information in a seamless and unregulated manner. This freedom provides both great opportunities and grave dangers.

 

The debate about social media regulation, free speech, fake news, and harmful contents came to a head when Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms decided to place a ban and later permanently suspend the accounts of the serving but outgoing United States president, Donald j. Trump. Whereas some have argued that the ban or removal of Trump from the social media space set a bad precedent in free speech and freedom of expression, others hold the view that there is a consequence for the social, political, and economic stability of the world, especially in the case of the USA and its global standing, when divisive and harmful rhetoric is allowed to fester.

It should be recalled that Donald Trump came to power on the back of heavy reliance on the power of social media, especially Twitter, with which he was able to bypass the big media organizations.  

Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, justified his decision to ban Trump from the social media platform, saying it was necessary to do so to mitigate “the risk of further incitement of violence” following an attack on the US Capitol Building in Washington DC on January 6 2021 said to have been inspired by Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in which he was defeated by form Vice President, Joe Biden and Trump’s continued use of social media to incite his loyal supporters.

The tech giant CEO, Dorsey on banning Trump from Twitter notes that “I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here,” Dorsey said. “Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.

“Yes, we all need to look critically at inconsistencies of our policy and enforcement. Yes, we need to look at how our service might incentivize distraction and harm. Yes, we need more transparency in our moderation operations. All this can’t erode a free and open global internet,”

In the light of this new controversy of the Trump ban, there have been several views, debates, and commentaries on communication, online media access and political freedom and free speech, fake news, and false narratives in the era of liberalized online media access. Some sections of the debate insist that, whereas, freedom of expression is a fundamental virtue of democracy, however, unguarded and unpatriotic narrative or expressions of speech can harm the society in that it may lead to dissent, violence, and breakdown of the existing social system fueled by lack of faith in state institutions or global institution, especially coming from highly placed individuals and opinion leaders.

In a 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre on the future of free speech, trolls, anonymity, and fake news online, their findings revealed that many experts, who were surveyed, showed serious concern that ”uncivil and manipulative behaviors on the internet will persist – and may get worse” leading to “a splintering of social media into AI-patrolled and regulated ‘safe spaces’ separated from free-for-all zones” which may “hurt the open exchange of ideas and compromise privacy”

 

The virtues of traditional journalism are hinged on core principles of fairness, truth, balance, and objectivity which appear lacking in the new media eco-system with empowered citizen journalists and open access to information dissemination which are enabled by social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. This, fundamentally, will continue to harm the process of information flow and application of freedom of speech and freedom to receive and disseminate information.

The fundamental questions are whether the restriction or ban of Trump will signal a new trend in online media restrictions, regulations, and control? Would this recent event interfere with future possibilities of a ‘Global Village’ evolution as envisaged and espoused by Marshal McLuhan? What are the economic and political implications of a restrictive media eco-system and what set of (new) regulations are healthy enough to curtail the abuse or misuse and to enhance the scope of online conversations?

Victor Ikem is a media researcher and public policy analysts

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