I guess this is the digital-age equivalent of defenestration: rather than an authoritarian getting thrown out a window, he gets thrown off Twitter. And now that the major platforms have closed the proverbial barn door while the cows run amok on Pennsylvania Avenue, calling the decision to deplatform Trump too little too late is itself saying far too little, and way too late.
On December 31, 2016, I published a post asking whether Americans might begin to doubt the extravagant premise that the internet as we know it is a gift to democracy. To an extent, the answer to that question was yes. Over the past four years, we did see at least a new willingness to criticize Silicon Valley; and at the same time, that industry’s ability to thwart every policy initiative with the over-broad message that “the internet would break” proved as futile as it is fallacious.
That it took a violent, seditious* assault on the Capitol to slap at least some of Trump’s enablers into reality is dismaying to say the least, and many of those enablers should not—and very possibly will not—be forgiven. But we should also not be quick to absolve the corporate enablers at Twitter, Facebook, et al, or their well-financed network of shills who so earnestly promoted the notions that all content online is tantamount to protected speech, that the free exchange of all views is inherently a net positive, and that the good will outweigh the bad as long as we remove all barriers to informative and cultural material.
Long before Trump announced his candidacy, the political landscape had been well-softened by the illusion that social platforms provide better transparency, and Trump’s incipient cult was not unique in believing that “new media” were providing access to a truth that the gatekeepers of the “old media” were hiding. At the same time, social platforms are uniquely designed to feed that egotist in us that craves the dopamine hit generally referred to as confirmation bias.
The tech-utopians truly believed (and apparently still do) that a more enlightened, more civilized world is the inexorable outcome of more access to more information. When some of us countered that internet platforms seem to be highly effective at spreading disinformation and other toxic content, we were called luddites who hate progress and technology. We were told that we wanted to stop a new enlightenment in which “the whole store of human knowledge would be at everyone’s fingertips.”
It should not have been so easy for a president, or any individual, to insinuate that the entire intel community is a corrupt “deep state” or that election officials are liars or that over 60 courts, including the Supreme Court, willfully ignored fraud in the 2020 election. Those conclusions insist that not one of the tens of thousands of oath-taking public servants implicated can be trusted over the word of one man or the conspiratorial ravings of some profiteering opportunists on the internet.
We must acknowledge that Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, Reddit et al have been the category killers in the business of that profiteering opportunism. If one feels suddenly inclined to straighten out a Trump defender on the First Amendment, remember that it was these corporations, with the assistance of the EFF, Techdirt, Public Knowledge, the ACLU and others, all asserting for many years that almost everything posted online should be treated with the deference of protected speech. Whether militance on this matter is ideological or simple greed, it is a premise that must be rejected as false for our own good. David Golumbia, associate professor of digital studies, wrote recently for the Boston Globe:
As a small group of scholars and activists are arguing with increasing force,…it is manifestly possible to protect free speech — and thus enhance the political and democratic values free speech is meant to promote — while suppressing, or at least not actively encouraging, the efforts of those who want to turn democracies against themselves.
And if we grasp that protections on speech really exist to enhance democratic participation, then it’s easier to see through the claims that digital products such as Bitcoin or Apple’s computer code count as speech. In other words, we’d see that a lot of cries for “freedom of speech” in the Internet era are really just demands for freedom from regulations that wouldn’t be challenged in the offline world.
So, by all means, Senators Hawley and Cruz, and any elected official who lent credence to the stolen election story, should be held accountable for feeding a fire that exploded on January 6,and is probably not done exploding. But Big Tech executives and the “digital rights” groups have much to answer for as well. To a very great extent, Donald Trump merely exploited the systemic and psychological vulnerabilities that the major platforms had been exacerbating and monetizing for years.
The leaders of the internet industry have consistently spoken to the public in the ebullient language of new horizons, where fresh ideas and opportunities converge. But that was only part of the picture. While raking in billions, these companies willfully ignored or scornfully dismissed the fact that their systems and business models made few distinctions among information, misinformation, and disinformation. Instead, they papered over those dichotomies by citing the First Amendment to which they owed no duty whatsoever. So, yes, Trump and his supporters are dead wrong to call the sudden deplatforming an infringement of the speech right, but it was the internet companies themselves who fed them that lie in the first place.
*CORRECTION: This was originally published as “treasonous,” which is the wrong word.
© 2021, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.