Twitter’s permanent suspension of former President Donald Trump on Jan. 8 sent shockwaves throughout the internet. A domino effect ensued — major social media platforms removed Trump’s accounts from their services with subsequent crackdowns on content. His online absence was a quiet respite in wake of the violence carried out by members of Trump’s loyal base two days prior in Washington, D.C.
The argument that Trump’s account should be removed for inciting violence is reasonable on its surface. Yet the deeper implications of Big Tech censoring the former president are discouraging and reveal a harrowing truth: The future of public discourse is in the hands of the few, the unelected and the elite.
Although Twitter has a history of permanently removing political content left and right (literally) without citing specifics, muting their sixth-most followed user, the (at the time) sitting President of the United States, clarifies the uncanny extent of Big Tech’s power. When they silence people, they start to establish a monopoly on speech and disrupt our modern preconceptions of online discourse.
Never has a company been so essential to communication as Twitter, yet so invasive in the medium of communication itself. AT&T has no say in your phone calls. Internet providers cannot restrict the sites you visit. The government could, but we elect our government officials. They swear an oath to uphold the First Amendment, even when it defends speech they cannot personally abide. No one elected Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and CEO, and no one can vote him out if he does a poor job.
Despite growing ire toward Big Tech among Republican lawmakers, the government barely pushes back. The sites’ editorial freedom stems from a clause in the Communications Decency Act signed into law in 1996 — when Mark Zuckerberg was 11. To put it the most plain, the government recognizes Big Tech sites as "platforms," not publishers and shields them from liability when users post illegal content.
This logic is based on a Wild West Internet that came and went. Twitter and Facebook may not be publishers, but they are certainly not neutral anymore. We’ve known this since "echo chamber" became the term de jour after Trump’s win in 2016, and we know why: being neutral doesn’t make money.
The question of Facebook’s profitability died when Donald Trump decided to run for office. His polarizing effect glued eyes to the website and created an opportunity to target content (and ads) to users. Whether or not Facebook says it publicly, they likely wish they could keep him.
The shareholders of a website should not be liable if a user commits a crime, of course. But the profit model of social media has warped to promote the most incendiary, divisive content, as many learned from the 2020 Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and the documentary’s unlikely star, warned about the industry from which he defected.
“[T]he mob’s readiness to believe [alleged election fraud] was in large part a product of the attention economy that modern technology has created,” Harris wrote on Jan. 10 in the MIT Technology Review.
Additionally, the removal of Trump’s account and not those of other violent actors is confusing at best. At worst, it solves nothing. What of the countless users who invoked violent rhetoric leading up to Jan. 6, and who continued stoking fears in the days leading up to President Joe Biden’s inauguration? They ran amok on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere, and their favorite politician’s deplatforming only throws coals on the fire.
From conservatives condemning attacks on free speech, to some on the left concerned with their own censorship forthcoming, no one seems truly content with Twitter’s decision to slap the former president on the wrist more than 1,400 days into his term of office. If one thing has been made clear since this artificial drought of Donald Trump’s thoughts, it's that even a sitting head of state is subject to rules made up by some guys in Silicon Valley.
It's not the end of free speech as we know it just yet, but Trump’s historic ban spells concern for the future of online communication.