'Repeated incitements to violence' and 'tons of misinformation' are reasonable grounds for Trump's Twitter ban: MIT Professor

Sinan Aral, David Austin Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and Author of "The Hype Machine," joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to break down the latest on President Trump's ban from multiple social media platforms.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Now the president is also being punished by tech companies, who have made moves to ban him on their platforms. We have a graphic here with all of those tech companies taking that step. It also includes Twitter, Facebook, and even Pinterest making those moves. You can see that full list there. Shopify, Twitch, Instagram are some others.

We have Sinan Aral, a David Austin Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He's also author of the book "The Hype Machine" here with us. You know, for years, Facebook and Twitter, especially, were criticized for their failure to really regulate the content on their platforms.

I'm wondering, though, if you think that this is the way to regulate that content, to really ban some of these figures, political figures, and some of these movements from their platforms.

SINAN ARAL: Well, I mean, I think that while the decisions are justified and now becoming more and more unanimous in the sense that it, while I'm a big proponent of free speech and the First Amendment and so on, these are private companies. This is not a public square. And there is some speech that is harmful enough that we don't want it on social media.

You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, and incitements to violence and riots, repeated incitements to violence, in addition to tons of misinformation, are reasonable grounds for a ban. But I think that the effect is largely symbolic in that the platforms are saying, we will not stand for speech like this.

And other people will now need to take that into account when they speak on these platforms in the future. I should note, however, that because Twitter acted late, they actually banned Trump on a couple of tweets that were more innocuous. His earlier content was, in fact, more incendiary.

KRISTIN MYERS: So conservatives long say, though, that they've been unfairly punished, unfairly treated on these platforms. The president, even, at what you just mentioned, some of those later tweets, he even mentioned that in one of his later tweets right before that ban. I'm wondering if, though, you see these moves as perhaps a slippery slope.

Folks on the right are saying that only, quote, unquote, socially acceptable discourse is now going to be allowed on these platforms. Where do companies draw this line for what is allowed or what isn't allowed on their platform, especially since there are sometimes these indirect links to what their supporters or what their followers go and do with the information and with what they tweet or what they post?

SINAN ARAL: What a fantastic question. It's one of the most important questions facing the technological element of our digital democracy today. That's why I brought up the moderation decisions on the exact tweets on which Twitter banned the brand President Trump's account on Twitter.

I do think that that kind of sort of not very well justified content moderation decision emboldens those Trump allies who would say that this was an unjustifiable ban, whereas the totality of all of the content certainly could easily be seen to justify a ban. What that means is that the content moderation policies and decisions are absolutely essential.

There needs to be much more systematic, transparent, comprehensive, and detailed content moderation policies that are logical, rational, that actually draw these bright lines very explicitly and clearly. And then the platforms can make individual account or tweet decisions or post decisions based on a systematic and transparent set of policies, which they have not had.

I'll just point to the Hunter Biden emails, where Twitter first allowed it, then banned it, then changed their rules in order to justify the ban and so on. That kind of reactive policy will make both sides question whether or not they're making the right decisions. They need to be systematic. And they need to be transparent, comprehensive in their policies.

KRISTIN MYERS: So speaking about that, because we've heard about regulatory headwinds for a lot of these companies, and not just from the right, not just from conservatives, but also from Democrats, as you just pointed out, feeling like these companies are frankly not doing enough in their regulation, enough in their moderation.

But when you see the moves that some of these companies just made, I'm wondering if you think that, perhaps, you know, this creates a bit of a target on their back for some sort of retaliatory move out of Congress.

Now the president did actually tweet out that he was actually thinking of some sort of retaliatory move around Section 230. I'm wondering what you think Congress is going to do, particularly on the Republican side of things, going forward after the moves that companies like Twitter and Facebook took.

SINAN ARAL: Well, I mean, I think that's why you see all these stocks trending downward today, is because it created a tremendous amount of regulatory uncertainty, what kind of appetites are there in Congress for coming after big tech. In particular, I think that Section 230 is a big question. So on one hand, you have conservatives who say that there's conservative bias and censorship against conservatives.

On the other hand, the platforms are being pulled in the exact opposite direction by Democrats, saying they're not doing enough to moderate more content, more misinformation, and so on. One of the major issues is Section 230 repeal or reform.

Now, grouping that debate into repeal or reform is a mistake, because repeal will either create a swamp out of social media if they decide not to moderate anything, or it will create dramatic censorship if they decide to run everything posted on social media through legal before they post it. Neither outcome is good.

I do believe there could be sensible reforms to Section 230 that could achieve our aims without disrupting the social media economy takedown notices, so giving a reasonable amount of time where somebody raises a legal issue with content, and then the platforms have a certain amount of time to take them down and then bear some legal responsibility.

We have those kinds of policies with intellectual property. There are other ways to go about reforming Section 230. Repealing it is not a great solution for the digital economy.

KRISTIN MYERS: You know, moving forward, Sinan, you know, when I think about moves like this, I think, OK, this doesn't actually silence any of these voices. It just forces them, really, to go elsewhere. I'm wondering, moving forward, if you think that there will be some sort of proliferation of alternate websites or platforms or applications.

I know that at least when it comes to Google and Apple, made that a little bit more difficult by banning some of these apps from app store. But moving on foward, what do you think is going to happen in terms of social media to allow for some of these more conservative voices that say, hey, I'm being banned, I'm being censored, and I want to post whatever I want to post on some sort of website?

SINAN ARAL: Well, I mean, I think that the bans created the immediate danger of what's been called the splinter net, where we see a tearing apart of the social network online into conservative and more liberal factions, where they do not speak to each other, they hear completely different types of information.

I think this is a horrible result for our democracy, because it reduces our ability to find common ground, which any student of negotiation knows is essential to collaboration, cooperation, and coordination across differing viewpoints. That was what happened in the initial hours after the ban.

Key conservative more fringe voices, like Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, said, we're suspending our Twitter accounts. Please join us on Parler and Ruble and so on. And then the question now becomes, to what extent does that kind of bifurcation bring a large mass of mainstream conservatives with it? Or is it just the fringe that follows those types of voices to a Parler or a Rumble.

When Parler was completely taken offline by Amazon, it created another issue. My guess is, my prediction is, they will be back online. They will be able to find a web hosting service that supports them. The question is, how isolated will it become? Will it be a draw to mainstream conservatives? Or will it only be a draw to the fringe?

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to quickly ask you, and you might not know this, but really more the legal aspect of this, if you think that some of these companies might be opening themselves up for some legal challenges, the First Amendment is not one of them, as so many people have tried to argue.

You are allowed to be censored by a private company. You're just not allowed to be censored by the government, a quick civics lesson for everyone at home. But I'm wondering if there are some legal challenges you think might be facing some of these companies.

SINAN ARAL: Yeah, I mean, I think that there could be. And I think that that uncertainty is what's dragging the stocks down today. I think that there could be legal challenges with regard to, for instance, any kind of part they played. Do they bear any responsibility for the impacts of that content? A lot of that is shielded by Section 230. And to the extent that Section 230 is repealed or reformed, that could create some legal liability.

We see companies, for example, like Airbnb, have challenged lawsuits on the grounds of Section 230 and have won some of the times and failed some of the times. They've had to develop other legal protections besides 230, for instance, if some of the advertisements for housing on their platform violate housing law or housing rules in a particular region or city.

And I think that that creates uncertainty. I do believe that we will see more moving forward, as we see where the regulatory environment is going to go. As has been stated, Joe Biden has to date supported repeal of Section 230, which as I've stated, I think is a big mistake.

I think that reform is a much better option. And I think that that's going to get us to the middle ground that supports the social media economy while handling some of the thorny issues we have around technology's relationship to our democracy and civil society.

KRISTIN MYERS: Sinan Aral, MIT Sloan School of Management, also author of the book "The Hype Machine." You can see it there over his shoulder. Sinan, I want to thank you for joining us today, absolutely fascinating conversation, a lot more questions I know coming only in the future, appreciate you breaking down all of the latest with us.

SINAN ARAL: Thank you.