Be Careful What You Cheer For — Twitter and the Vast Powers of Silicon Valley
Last week when Twitter announced it would be suspending President Trump from its platform permanently, I began wondering what possible implications there could be. The positives were obvious; he would no longer be able to lie and incite violence to his millions of followers with the same impunity and ease. The worst impulses of an unstable man would no longer be given an immediate megaphone.
The downsides to his de-platforming were less clear. For his aggrieved supporters, they would surely feel as though their voices were being silenced. Are they being stripped of their First Amendment rights as they claim? Of course not. The problem, though, is that regardless of that reality, we will be faced with tens of millions of Americans who believe the decks are stacked against them. In their eyes, it will be up to them to make their voices heard by any means necessary. Could that in turn lead to more violence such as what we saw at Capitol Hill last week?
Clearly, this justification to preserve his account falls flat. Trump inciting violence on Twitter led to his ban, but we’re supposed to allow him to continue spewing lies and hatred because if we don’t, his followers will declare war? This is damned if you do, damned if you don’t hostage-taking that shouldn’t be indulged. What if, however, whether Twitter is better with or without Trump isn’t the question to be concerned with? Shouldn’t the way those decisions are being made and the people who are deciding them be just as important, if not more so?
When it comes to Trump’s presence on Twitter, the negatives clearly outweigh the positives. Dating back to when he was a candidate, there have been innumerous occasions wherein tweets of his would have been removed or his entire account shut down if it weren’t for his political profile. Whether for a significantly lower amount of hatred on the site or just a relief to the blood pressure of millions of anxious Americans, Trump no longer being on Twitter should be celebrated.
The way it happened should not.
Whatever the over/under is on the number of weeks until we start seeing evocative commercials from Facebook and Twitter with some “Do what’s right, not what’s easy,” tagline, bet the under and bet it big.
I don’t personally believe that Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and the executives banning Trump from their platforms are doing so out of a sense of civic duty. Call me crazy. This President has cast dispersions on election integrity, incited violence, and defended the most abhorrent of his supporters for as long as he has held office; his most frequent bully pulpit being Twitter and Facebook. Were the events of last week, or Trump’s role in facilitating them on social media so blatantly worse than anything else he’s done, that these executives miraculously had their ‘come to Jesus' moment? More likely, in my opinion, is that they now have more broad public pressure, and they no longer need to fear retribution from an outgoing Trump administration with dwindling legislative authority.
Additionally, and most importantly, this is about PR and the bottom line. These tech giants saw an opportunity, as many companies have over the past several years, to enhance their brand and capitalize on a dark moment in American history they uniquely helped facilitate. Whatever the over/under is on the number of weeks until we start seeing evocative commercials from Facebook and Twitter with some “Do what’s right, not what’s easy,” tagline, bet the under and bet it big.
The problem with Trump’s removal, (particularly from Twitter which has made the suspension permanent), is that whether born from a moral awakening or simply driven by money, we as Americans will never know. Statements have and will continue to be released, but at the end of the day, these decisions are being made by unelected tech executives behind closed doors, with zero accountability to anyone but their shareholders. Whether or not you believe Trump should be allowed to have a presence on social media, consider for a moment the power of a small group of private businesspeople with no oversight deciding in a matter of hours whether the President of the United States, with over 88 million followers, will lose that platform.
Conservative critics scrutinize the decision and claim this is just the beginning. Laugh now, but they’re coming for you next, they warn. For a majority of Americans and Twitter users, though, the prospect of keeping their social media access so long as they maintain the Orwellian order of remaining nonviolent seems surprisingly easy. For critics, the doomsday warnings of mass-censorship, violent retribution, and the elimination of 1st Amendment rights have flown freely since Trump’s removal last week. As has been the case throughout the entirety of our most recent chapter of black and white, one side or another American culture and politics, their opponents have broadly dismissed those warnings as reactionary and unfounded.
What I fear most is that both sides are missing the bigger picture. Looking back, this narrow, no grey area approach has been disastrous for our country. In the aftermath of 9/11, politicians either supported the broad expansion of our national security and surveillance apparatus, or they didn’t. They supported the war in Iraq, or they opposed it. In either scenario, whether through what was considered major policy victories or minor legislative concessions, the result was a dramatic transferal of power with implications we wouldn’t fully realize for years to come.
Of course, policies and departments instituted in the name of national security post 9/11 were created at the government level, mostly by elected officials, whereas the decisions we’re discussing from Silicon Valley are being made by private businesses. However, the prospect of special interests trojan horsing ideas and policies that benefit them without broader consideration of consequences should be worrisome no matter which power structure they emerge from. Does Twitter banning Trump from their platform indicate mass censorship of certain ideas is forthcoming? I don’t believe so. Does their ability to singularly remove the leader of the free world from their platform demonstrate an expansion of power and authority over a somehow broader portion of our lives? I would say, emphatically, it does.
In the midst of a cultural moment where one of the two major political parties in America is having an honest conversation about the ethics of capitalism, many in that same party are cheering the removal of the nation’s top government official from a platform owned by one of the richest companies in the world. It’s being done without oversight or meaningful public input, and as is the case with most of the major news that has transpired these past four years, it’s being buried by an avalanche of new breaking stories. Be happy that you no longer have to frantically check Twitter when you wake up to so see what new bomb Trump is threatening to drop. Breathe a sigh of relief that, barring further violence, we’re only a week away from putting an end to one of the most disastrous Presidencies of our lives. Just don’t think for a second we have a clue what the long-term implications of these decisions might be.
As always, be careful what you cheer for.