Silicon Valley Reichstag — why President Trump being banned from social media is no cause for celebration
I have a complicated relationship with Glenn Greenwald. I unabashedly admire those who challenge tyranny at great personal risk, and in that respect Greenwald is very much someone I admire. From his work on the Snowden leaks to the corruption and violence of the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil, he has often made himself a target in the name of exposing the truth.
But of course anyone familiar with Greenwald knows he is a pretty abrasive personality, particularly when he agrees with you, falling somewhere in the spectrum of that kid in high school who identified as the devil’s advocate and that kid in high school who treated South Park like it was scripture. While some people just dismiss this as Greenwald being, well, an asshole, it actually very much fits the political ethos that also seems to motivate the admirable actions I referenced above. In a world where liberals have all become neoliberals and libertarians have all admitted to actually being fascists, Greenwald is the rare example of a true classical liberal, a man who is so dedicated to civil liberties that he will defend the rights of Nazis and transphobic bigots to speak their hatreds.
That’s a position I very much disagree with, for reasons I have laid out here and elsewhere. In short, formal equality and the marketplace of ideas are both concepts that I find mythical rather than aspirational. There is no equality of speech when speech is delineated by means. As Greenwald himself knows, if corporate media does not want you to be heard, you will have a hard time getting heard. Similarly, the marketplace of ideas supports the best kind of ideas as much as the capitalist marketplace supports the best kind of products. The modern prevalence of conspiracy theories enabled by our marketplace of ideas is similar to what big box stores like Amazon and Walmart have done to the quality of goods.
But while Greenwald and I may disagree on quite a bit politically, his recent departure from The Intercept and the underlying article (which everyone should read) was something I was very much sympathetic to, though perhaps with a different focus. I am a consumer rights attorney, and both in that work as well as political work outside of that I deal a lot with the finance industry. A lot, though not all, of the most predatory industry practices come out of the extensive amount of self-regulation permitted under the laws of our country. Self-regulation has a different purpose than regulation — it at most seeks to avoid liability rather than promote the public good.
Social media has largely been a self-regulated industry, from its data collection to its policies on speech. That could change as odd bedfellows of Trumpists and left-leaning Democrats, and the occasional celebrity, call for the industry to be regulated. When the threat of real regulation looms over an industry, a common response is to create their own regulation and call it sufficient. This has already been happening, both with company specific practices like Facebook’s oft-criticized hate speech moderation to the almost-industry-wide censorship of the Hunter Biden article criticized by Greenwald.
To the ire of many of my liberal friends, it concerned me a lot too. Liberals would correctly point out that it is not a free speech issue since there is no state action, no nexus of the government telling people they cannot express some opinion. But what is legal is not always what is right, and what is not government censorship can still be censorship all the same. And it is this dynamic of being entirely the decision of private companies itself that I find so troubling — without any democratic input, a bunch of major corporations decided to not share an inarguably newsworthy story about the son of a presidential candidate. We never saw this with the lies of the second Iraq War or the ongoing orientalist fake news about any “adversary” country of the United States (and we can again thank Glenn for pointing out that hypocrisy as well). This was unabashedly political censorship, and we can reassure ourselves that it was political censorship for the right reasons, but the state of denial a large amount of the press and pundits were in to believe it was not censorship was deeply deeply troubling.
But that act was not nearly as troubling as the actions in reaction to the breach of the Capitol, a news story that has been sensationalized and blown out of proportion by the corporate media despite actually being a crazy and troubling story. And in the ever-present need to perform righteousness for the crowds people online 24/7, social media companies have joined in the fray by finally banning President Donald Trump.
What a total joke for starters. Certainly President Trump’s insistence that he did not lose the election and that it was rigged was the gunpowder that the spark of the Capitol riot was thrown on. The death of the woman allegedly shot by Capitol Police can certainly be pinned on President Trump. But that single loss of life pales in comparison to the other acts he is responsible for. Concentration camps at the southern border where people regularly die of easily preventable illnesses. Bombing of civilian targets in Iraq and Syria, not to mention illegally assassinating a popular Iranian hero and thus threatening the possibility of a new and terrible war. Spreading the most insane misinformation possible about the COVID-19 pandemic that almost certainly has a body count in the hundreds if not thousands. And some property damage and the death of one of his supporters triggers this? Is it believable that this would be the final straw versus the political convenience of taking action a couple of weeks from when he will no longer be president?
But the precedent this sets is so incredibly dangerous. Leave aside for now your feelings about Trump (we will come back to them very soon I promise). The largest platforms for sharing information in the world have banned the President of the United States from using them without any basis in governmental action or law. It would be one thing if President Trump was removed from office tomorrow and then he was banned — it would just be the banning of some shmuck. But the President of the United States, not just some racist shmuck, was banned from the largest platforms for sharing information in the world. And if you’re still not getting it, go back to those feelings about President Trump. Remember the protest in Portland just a few months ago that got violent and left a member of reactionary group Patriot Prayer dead? The protest was organized by Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America — what if social media decided to ban all DSA electeds to prevent the fomenting of anymore violence? What if Rep. Ilhan Omar was banned for attending protests about the murder of George Floyd after the arson of the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct? And so on and so forth.
Flashback to April 21, 1968. Charles Evers, field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, is in the midst of a very heated boycott of white merchants until the entire police force of Port Jefferson was fired following the murder of a Black man named Roosevelt Jackson (sound familiar?). During his speech that day, Evers told the crowd of supporters “If we catch any of you going into these racist stores, we’re going to break your damn neck.” While the connection to this speech was highly disputed, there was violence (mostly against Black picket crossers) resulting from the boycott. The white merchants sued to recover their losses and get an injunction preventing future boycotts. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and in possibly one of the most important free speech decisions for the Left ever, that has kept many of our leaders from being incarcerated and arguably makes anti-BDS laws unconstitutional, the Court ruled in favor of the NAACP. Justice Stevens wrote that “boycotts and related activities to bring about political, social and economic change are political speech, occupying the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.” What Evers said, and the violence that did coincide with the boycott, was not the basis for prohibiting political speech in the highest rung of First Amendment values.
Again, the social media banning of President Trump is not state action and thus the First Amendment does not apply. But that is a deficiency of the First Amendment rather than coherence with protecting political speech. And while President Trump may be a compulsive liar, his alleged incitement of the Capitol riot is actually far less directly calling for violence than the speech by Evers back in 1968, and it is inarguably political speech. And again, Glenn Greenwald and I do differ on political speech. When political speech takes the form of literal Klan rallies, I do not think it should be protected. But the one thing we can agree on is that corporations unilaterally making the decision about when political speech crosses the line and should be censored is abhorrent and dangerous.
The boldness of social media making these kind of decisions is quickly escalating. Censorship of an admittedly questionable article about Hunter Biden pales in comparison to total censorship of the President of the United States, even if it is total censorship a couple of weeks before he will leave the post and following a riot. The spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation via social media caused the Capitol riot far more than anything that Donald Trump said. So why would we let the companies that caused the riot decide when enough is enough? The only way we can move away from this mess, rather than deepening it, is to turn away from the Reichstag fire, not looking for a convenient scapegoat, but instead clearly dealing with the material causes of the problem that are not resolved merely by banning the unpopular political figure de jour.
Addendum: Things are continuing to escalate as people are now calling for Facebook to unilaterally shut down political groups with more than 14,000 people in them and Twitter is purging so-called “violent tweets,” urged on by the nonprofit Advance Democracy, which was founded by former FBI investigator Daniel Jones. While the purges are allegedly spurred by connections to violence, Twitter’s statement that it is taking these actions to “protect the public conversation” is a bit of a mask off moment, and it is deeply concerning that the social media corporations feel empowered to now dictate what public political conversations are.