Tech Giants Can’t Be Trusted to Police Speech

Tech Giants Can’t Be Trusted to Police Speech

Tech Giants Can’t Be Trusted to Police Speech

The job of regulating incendiary discourse belongs to democratically elected governments, not powerful private interests.


Emergency measures, created under the stress of pressing events, rarely lead to ideal policies. Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior since losing the presidential election, starting with a barrage of lies about election theft and culminating last Wednesday with the incitement of a mob that attacked Congress, has led to a massive shift among social media giants that had previously tolerated—and directly profited from—the surge in traffic generated by the president’s racist and threatening rhetoric.

Trump and his campaign are currently banned from posting on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and Twitch. On Tuesday night, YouTube became the latest social media platform to freeze out Trump.

Last Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated: “The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden.” Some of these interdictions are temporary, but at least one, Twitter, is permanent.

There’s no reason to shed tears for the death of Trump’s Twitter account. He’s used these forums to fan the flames of violence. But Trump and his followers were quick to cry censorship. On Twitter, Donald Trump Jr. wrote, “The world is laughing at America & Mao, Lenin, & Stalin are smiling. Big tech is able to censor the President? Free speech is dead & controlled by leftist overlords.” This is absurd on every level. Mao and company were hardly fans of private industries’ barring the speech of political leaders. Nor are companies like Twitter “leftist” in any meaningful way.

Right-wing claims that Trump is being censored are rife with hypocrisy. The political right, after all, usually celebrates the unregulated free market. It’s a transparently self-interested position to insist that the market should rule—except when it hurts your own political cause.

But those on the left who distrust the concentration of economic power have more principled grounds to be concerned. As the writer Anand Giridharadas likes to say, the social media crackdown on Trump is a case where arsonists are allowed to recast themselves as firefighters. Trump’s entire political career was fueled by social media: Twitter allowed him to define himself as a brash outsider not afraid to mete out insults against more conventional politicians like Crooked Hillary, Low-Energy Jeb, and Sleepy Joe. Facebook has been a torpid hothouse where countless Trumpian conspiracy theories, notably the QAnon fantasies, have flourished.

There is something arbitrary and even cowardly about the fact that these social media outlets are turning on Trump in the very twilight of his presidency. It’s easy to take a heroic stance when the stakes are low. Earlier in Trump’s political career, social media companies were more than happy to profit from Trump in numerous ways: He was a reliable generator of clicks, his campaign was a generous purchaser of advertising, and his tax cuts made Silicon Valley billionaires even richer.

The belated turn against Trump is a purely cynical exercise. Companies that once benefited from Trump no longer need him. Nor do they need to fear that he’ll unleash regulators that can hurt their business.

There’s no reason Trump should have been banned in the last week when he’s been trafficking in lies, racism, and threats for his whole political career—not to mention his previous career as a real estate mogul and reality TV star.

As The New York Times observed last August, Trump has “a long history of language that incites and demonizes.” The newspaper observed that “Trump has seized on the response in the streets to police brutality against Black men and women to bolster his re-election campaign, employing provocative and sometimes incendiary language and images to incite his followers, demonize his opponents or both.” Trump’s incitement often appeared on his social media accounts, which repeatedly made overtures to QAnon believers and white nationalists.

If Trump is worth banning now, he was worth banning many years ago. The decision to ban him now is purely arbitrary, an assertion of raw corporate power rather than a principled stance. Motivated by fears of revenue-damaging regulations and boycotts, the social media crackdown is completely capricious. It highlights why such important decisions shouldn’t be left to the heads of a few very large firms.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, considers the Twitter banning of Trump to be “problematic.” As Seibert explained, the right of expression is fundamental. “This fundamental right can be intervened in, but according to the law and within the framework defined by legislators—not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms,” Seibert said.

This assertion that the perimeters of incendiary speech should be set by the state and not private industry is a wise one. If incendiary speech does threaten democracy, then it is too important a matter to be left to simply private hands. Social media relies on a public infrastructure, just as TV and radio do, and can be regulated in the same manner.

Russian politician Alexei Navalny argues that the banning of Trump could be a bad precedent used against political speech in other countries, recommending instead that the decision-making process of social media companies be made transparent. In place of fiat assertions about who is banned, Navalny suggests that Twitter “create some sort of a committee that can make such decisions. We need to know the names of the members of this committee, understand how it works, how its members vote and how we can appeal against their decisions.”

Beyond the special quandary of incendiary speech, there is the larger problem that the social media giants are now de facto monopolies. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg notes, “The ability of tech companies, acting in loose coordination, to mostly shut up the world’s loudest man is astonishing, and shows the limits of analogies to traditional publishers. It’s true that Trump can, any time he wants, hold a press conference or call into Fox News. But stripping him of access to social media tools available to most other people on earth has diminished him in a way that both impeachment and electoral defeat so far have not.”

If these firms are so powerful that they can be the primary gatekeepers between a president and the public, then they have outgrown democratic control. Here also the state can play a role. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to use antitrust law to break up these firms now has a new urgency.

As a short-term measure, the social media crackdown on Trump might be welcome. But Trump will soon be gone. Facebook, Twitter and the other Internet leviathans will remain. They should be the target of far-reaching reform.

This post has been updated.

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