From a stage in the heart of Silicon Valley, London mayor Sadiq Khan called on tech companies to rein in hate speech, speaking about his own experience of abuse amplified by one of the most powerful figures on social media.
He was referencing Donald Trump, who frequently used the mayor as an online punching bag, calling Khan “a stone-cold loser” and “very dumb”. Khan, whose family are from Pakistan, said the amount of racial abuse he received on social media increased by 2,000% under Trump and required him to receive police protection.
“The worst thing globalization has brought to social media is the proliferation of hate speech,” said Khan, speaking at Stanford University as part of his first visit to the US since the pandemic began.
Khan emphasized the power that companies have to act, saying that in the year after Twitter banned Trump over his role in inciting the attack at the US Capitol, he received “the least racial abuse of any time over five years”. Abuse directed at Khan declined by 75% in 2020, the year Trump lost the election, and a further 40% in 2021 after the ban from Twitter, according to statistics from London’s city hall.
The speech came just hours after Elon Musk, who is poised to take over Twitter, announced he would allow the former US president to return to the platform.
Khan stopped short of condemning Musk’s plans, saying he believes “passionately in freedom of speech” and trusts that those who lead Twitter will “make sure that you aren’t seeing messages that are inciting hatred, that are amplifying division”.
“The question is whether Donald Trump has learned his lesson,” Khan said. “Everybody should be entitled to be rehabilitated. And if it’s the case that Donald Trump is going to use Twitter in a responsible way, then it’s all well and good. But if he breaks the rules, there needs to be consequences.”
Musk has been vocal about his plans for Twitter after he revealed on 4 April he had become a majority stakeholder in the company and then rapidly negotiated a deal to buy the company for $44bn. He called the decision to ban Trump “morally bad” and “foolish in the extreme”.
Khan called on tech companies on Tuesday to “act rationally” and introduce new algorithmic measures to preemptively crack down on hate speech and misinformation. He called the current landscape “lawless”.
“On the one hand, social media, Facebook, Twitter – great,” he said. “On the other hand, [the abuse] is the consequence of a lack of control and lack of regulation.”
Earlier in the day, Khan spoke from a startup funding center on how Brexit had threatened London’s standing as a growing tech hub, and said his mission in California was, in part, to encourage links between Silicon Valley and London.
Khan acknowledged the UK’s decision to leave the EU and threaten to erase the “huge advantages” of having a single market – one that allows free movement of goods, services and talent.
“We have seen some flight, and that is one of the reasons why I’m in the USA banging the drum for London – we can’t be complacent,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.
The result has led many companies in the UK: more than 440 financial left the country after 2016, one 2021 study, and those that stayed study are looking ahead to confusing fees and paperwork for international trade.
However, London has attracted more international tech investment than any other global city, Khan said, citing a study from the promotional group London & Partners. From 2017 to 2021, London saw 251 US tech companies set up there, creating almost 9,000 new jobs, the same study showed.
But while statistics show that the “worst fears” have not materialized, Khan said, the new landscape has underscored the need to keep pushing forward.
“We have to understand the Brexit post that we live in a very competitive world,” he said. “We have to show our strength is not just the tech, but the geography, higher education, and more. That attracts people to come in the first place and keeps them there as well.”