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EDITORIAL: Level the playing field

"It is past time for social media sites to be accountable to the same laws publishers are."

Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump did what few thought possible last week: he forced social media sites to draw the line on what content goes too far.

It took four years of unfettered tweeting, and a mob breaking into the U.S. Capitol to stop the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden, for that line to be drawn – but there it is: our cousin to the south has a leader who has now been banned from Twitter and Facebook.

Many of us are wondering why the line took so long to draw. Social media sites seem to apply rules inconsistently, allowing some users to post things others are banned for. The online posts of various political leaders are a drop in the bucket compared to the charged comments, libellous accusations and attacks that appear in many comment threads. But there are few U.S. laws governing the Internet, and even fewer that apply to social platforms.

Canada has the same troubles. Take for example the recent travel scandal in Alberta – incredible lapses in judgment by high-ranking politicans. In St. Albert, when news broke of Coun. Sheena Hughes' ill-considered Mexico sojourn, social media was ablaze with personal attacks on her demeanour, looks, intelligence and gender. Even on less politically charged topics, it's become commonplace to see people characterized as "evil," "scum," and any other invective you can think up simply for a difference of opinion.

None of this is surprising to any who have been paying attention. Much of it has been justified in the name of free speech. Efforts to moderate such vitriol is met with cries of censorship. But it is past time for social media sites to be accountable to the same laws publishers are.

Publishers often face censorship allegations as well, sometimes for refusing to run a libellous letter, sometimes for turning off comments on a particularly sensitive article. However, bolstered by libel and slander laws, we have been incentivized to fact check thoroughly, moderate comments with a heavy hand and turf any content that doesn't meet the standards of law. The alternative is costly lawsuits. Journalism often takes this one step further by requiring an extra layer of analysis, affording all sides opportunity to weigh in, and putting deep thought into the most responsible ways to cover topics. And if you don’t agree with our fairness or objectivity, you can escalate your complaint by contacting the National Newsmedia Council at the website in our masthead below. Try doing that with Twitter or Facebook and see where it goes.

If publishers can do it, social media sites can do it. Pulling the pin on Trump at the 13th hour, after four years of letting him run rampant making wild and baseless claims, should not net them any accolades. It's time for lawmakers to take a serious look at how these sites are governed and hold them responsible for the content that appears on their platforms.