MOSCOW — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny slammed Twitter’s decision to ban President Donald Trump from its platform as “an unacceptable act of censorship,” arguing that the move opened the door for the Kremlin to demand social media companies permanently suspend Russian opposition figures.
“In my opinion, the decision to ban Trump was based on emotions and political preferences,” Navalny wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread posted on Saturday evening. “Don’t tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn’t ban anyone (not that I ask for it).”
On Monday, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the German leader sees the decision by Twitter — followed by other social media companies — as "problematic."
Merkel's spokesman elaborated, saying that the chancellor considers free speech a fundamental and basic right that should only be limited by legal means, rather than the decisions of social media company executives. However, she does believe that social media companies have a considerable responsibility to prevent the further erosion of civic dialogue.
Twitter announced that it was permanently banning Trump from its platform on Friday in response to a series of tweets that the company argued glorified and incited violence. The move came days after a pro-Trump mob, encouraged by the president’s rhetoric both on and offline, stormed the U.S. capital in an attempt to halt the certification of Joe Biden as president-elect.
Twitter’s decision to ban Trump has been hailed by his critics as correct and overdue, but it also brings into sharp focus questions over the role of social media companies in facilitating and moderating political discourse.
The American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern about the implications of banning a president from an "indispensable" platform, but even some of the internet's most ardent free speech advocates had trouble pushing back against the Trump bans.
"A platform should not apply one set of rules to most of its users, and then apply a more permissive set of rules to politicians and world leaders who are already immensely powerful," the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supports privacy and free speech online, said Thursday in a statement.
For his part, Navalny is no fan of Trump, and celebrated the 2020 Presidential Election as a genuinely competitive race that was conducted fairly and transparently. He has been Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sharpest critic for a decade. He is currently in Germany, recovering from an assassination attempt in Siberia last year with a deadly nerve agent.
But for Russian opposition figures like Navalny, the dangers of social media bans are immediately obvious.
“This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘This is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter,” Navalny wrote in a rare series of English-language Tweets.
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He added: “If you replace "Trump" with "Navalny" in today's discussion, you will get an 80 percent accurate Kremlin's answer as to why my name can't be mentioned on Russian TV and I shouldn't be allowed to participate in any elections.”
This sentiment was widely shared by other Russian opposition figures over the weekend.
But not everyone agrees with Navalny’s take. Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank who specializes in Russia’s domestic politics, says that Navalny’s warnings are overblown. The entire situation surrounding Trump’s final days in power is a gift to the Kremlin in that it makes it easy to point out American hypocrisy.
“As the leader of the opposition, Navalny is simply uncomfortable speaking in favor of banning anything, not to mention censorship, even of controversial figures,” Kolesnikov says. “Perhaps, it is not his views motivating these comments, but rather his situation. But he could not avoid speaking on such a heated discussion that splits liberals in Russia.”