In recent years, social media has become an essential tool for communication, organization, and activism. However, during times of social unrest, it can also become a platform for inciting violence and spreading hateful content. In France, the recent riots following the shooting of a 17-year-old boy have reignited the debate on whether social media platforms should be shut down during times of social unrest. EU Commissioner Thierry Breton has backed the French President's call for a debate on this issue. This article will explore the different perspectives on the debate and the potential implications of shutting down social media during times of social unrest.
The riots in France, which lasted for eight days, were triggered by the shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of North African descent, by a police officer during a traffic stop. The protests quickly turned violent, with cars burning, shop windows smashed, and clashes between protesters and police. The French government blamed social media platforms like Snapchat and TikTok for inciting violence among the youth. President Emmanuel Macron threatened to shut down these platforms if they failed to delete hateful content during riots under the new Digital Service Act.
The average age of the 3,300+ people arrested during the riots was 17, with some as young as 12 years old. Macron's call for shutting down social media during social unrest has been met with criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some French politicians have accused Macron of echoing authoritarian leaders like those of Iran, China, and Russia, where people need to use VPN services to access blocked apps.
The Digital Service Act (DSA) aims to tackle online dangers, hateful content, consumer fraud, commercial surveillance, and disinformation. The law seeks to protect children and democratic values, and failing to comply with the new rules could result in fines as high as 6% of a company's global turnover. The DSA brings some important regulations for digital services, including more transparency and accountability over the algorithms and content moderation practices employed, a ban on deceptive design, and a special duty of care for larger platforms. The latter includes the obligation of deleting hateful content immediately when required.
The DSA will come into force on August 25, bringing some important regulations for digital services, including more transparency and accountability over the algorithms and content moderation practices employed, a ban on deceptive design, and a special duty of care for larger platforms. The latter includes the obligation of deleting hateful content immediately when required.
However, there is some ambiguity around several DSA provisions that worry digital rights activists. According to Sebastian Becker Castellaro, Policy Advisor at European digital right advocacy group EDRi, "it is problematic that the highest authority in charge of the DSA implementation declares what is hateful content. Based on European fundamental rights standards, 'call for revolt' and even 'call for burning cars' is not hateful content and therefore are not illegal."
EU Commissioner Thierry Breton has backed Macron's call for a debate on shutting down social media during social unrest. "Social media didn't do enough," said Breton during an interview on France Info. "If they don't act immediately, then yes, at that point, we'll be able not only to impose a fine but also to ban the operation [of the platforms] on our territory."
Patrick Chaize, a center-right senator, has proposed an amendment to the French tech bill to require social media platforms to block hateful content within two hours after being posted. On July 5, government spokesman Olivier Veran mentioned temporary suspensions of functions like geolocation could also be used to prevent rioters from organizing themselves during unrests.
While the French government has not yet discussed potential shutdowns with the companies behind these platforms, the possibility of enforcing social media blackouts "when things get out of hand" is a "real debate we need to have," according to Macron.
Shutting down social media during times of social unrest could have severe implications for freedom of speech and access to information. The internet has become a crucial tool for communication, organization, and activism, especially in countries where traditional media is heavily censored or biased.
Governments infamous for their more authoritarian policies are more likely to attack freedoms on social media, yet sadly, social media shutdowns are an increasingly used tactic worldwide. According to Eliška Pirkova, Europe Policy Analyst and Global Freedom of Expression Lead at Access Now, "Disabling access to online platforms--such as social media--without adequate safeguards is a go-to tool for authoritarian regimes used to censor and oppress. Such a shortsighted action would mean a strong blow to democracy and its core values that would be very hard to recover from."
Furthermore, restricting online access will always result in the gross abuse of people's fundamental rights. Even when citizens manage to circumvent these blocks by using location-spoofing tools like virtual private network (VPN), internet shutdowns negatively impact the well-being of people while costing millions to national economies. The EU, including France, know very well that these measures hinder the economic, social, and cultural rights of citizens.
The DSA seeks to protect children and democratic values while tackling online dangers, hateful content, consumer fraud, commercial surveillance, and disinformation. The law brings some important regulations for digital services, including more transparency and accountability over the algorithms and content moderation practices employed. However, the vagueness and ambiguity around several DSA provisions worry digital rights activists.
According to Becker Castellaro, "it is problematic that the political situation of one specific European country may affect the implementation of the DSA." The trusted flaggers conundrum allows government and law enforcement agencies to hold the status of trusted flaggers, which could open the door to potential notice, action, and human rights misuse, especially among those EU Member States with an already weakened rule of law.
Pirkova stated, "No authority should ever disconnect--or threaten to disconnect--populations from access to information, especially during crises. During turbulent times, the internet can be a lifeline and should be a priority for governments, not a pawn for manipulation."