The recent purge of Trump and his supporters from social media seems to have kicked off a bit of a controversy, and not just between those who support him and those who don’t. This situation has also brought attention to the issue of the power social media companies have over online communication, but there are some who seem to be glossing over some things in the excitement over Trump’s removal. This is understandable, as the circumstances represent a sort of worst-case scenario that makes it difficult to make a case without seeming to defend Trump’s actions. That is not the goal of this article, to get that out of the way. However, there seems to be more to consider here than what is coming up in mainstream discourse.
The problem is not so much that Trump was banned for inciting violence, but that it seems as though it wasn’t done until it was commercially and politically convenient to do so. Also, while it is true that a private company banning a user is not a free speech issue in the sense of going against the First Amendment, it is concerning that a few giant corporations have as much influence over public speech as they do.
As for the first point, removing someone for inciting violence is indeed a reasonable rule, no argument there. However, as pointed out in Wired, the tweets that finally got him booted “were far from his worst.” As writer Gilad Edelman notes, the context and timing also had something to do with it, but this was not Trump’s first foray into online communications that could be interpreted as hate speech or inciting violence. On a similar note, Trump isn’t the first to make use of social media for spreading violence. One of the worst examples that comes to mind is the role Facebook played in aiding atrocities perpetrated by Myanmar.
I have seen some on the left characterize this as a fascist getting deplatformed, and that is a result to be celebrated, no doubt. However, we must ask: if Trump had won the election, and was still using social media to encourage his followers to perform acts of violence in that not-so-subtle fashion he’s so fond of, would they be so quick to ban him? Or would they still hem and haw over it as they have been more or less all along?
On the second issue, regardless of how you feel about Trump and his actions here, it seems worth considering that these few powerful entities had such an impact over the ability of the president of a large country to communicate publicly, disgraced as he may be. The issue here is not so much the question of where the line should be drawn on acceptable public speech, but whether we want that line being drawn by a few unaccountable executives. Especially when those executives do things like vow to “fight climate change” in public, then turn around and suppress non-violent climate activists.
As a final note, although I personally have no desire to defend Trump or his actions here, I do think we should be careful about censorship in general. As Noam Chomsky said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”