Donald Trump, at the time the lamest of lame duck presidents, got himself kicked off of Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. For many liberals and progressives alike, this was a real “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” moment.
Of course, the events leading up to Trump’s widely-celebrated ban were not particularly inspiring, unless we are talking about emotions like fear and abject horror. On January 6, Trump supporters, buoyed by the urging of their preferred candidate to go to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., stormed the place, prompting an evacuation and a halt of the counting of the Electoral College votes. What under normal circumstances is characteristically a rather prosaic affair became a chaotic series of events, the fallout of which is still being reckoned with as details of how it got so out of hand continue to emerge.
Trump, for his part, didn’t do much to stamp out the proverbial flames, offering a weak condemnation of the rioters and the eventual deadly violence before ultimately giving a statement telling the mob he egged on in the first place to go home. All the while, he expressed his “love” for the protesters and repeated his absurd claims that the election was stolen. Since then, he has—surprise!—refused to take responsibility for his role in fueling tensions that led to the debacle. Welp, if there’s one thing we can say about our Donald, it’s that he’s consistent!
It was therefore perhaps unavoidable that a score of social media sites would make the decision to ban Donald Trump indefinitely from their ranks, while other companies, if not banning Trump specifically, removed servers frequented by his followers or dropped Parler, a messaging app known to be frequented by right-wingers—particularly conspiracy theorists—and a forum on which planning for the so-called “insurrection” at the Capitol was evidently discussed.
Perhaps most significantly for Trump following his electoral defeat, he and his brand have taken a hit. Shopify, for one, removed all official Trump campaign merchandise by disabling his online stores. The Professional Golfers’ Association of America also voted to terminate their relationship with the Trump name, which means his Bedminster course won’t be hosting the PGA Championship next year. I, for one, am despondent I won’t be able to wear my MAGA hat and watch golf’s finest tee off from Trump’s private golf club—I don’t know about you.
So, yes, Trump was banned and all is well, right? That depends on who’s answering and how the ensuing discussion goes. The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, while not explicitly condemning the decision to outlaw Trump and his ilk, nonetheless expressed reservation about Big Tech’s part in all of this. The ACLU’s senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane put forth these views in the wake of Twitter’s announcement of Trump’s permanent suspension:
For months, President Trump has been using social media platforms to seed doubt about the results of the election and to undermine the will of voters. We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions—especially when political realities make those decisions easier. President Trump can turn to his press team of FOX News to communicate with the public, but others—like the many Black, Brown, and LGBTQ activists who have been censored by social media companies—will not have that luxury. It is our hope that these companies will apply their rules transparently to everyone.
Predictably, conservative outlets like Breitbart, Newsmax and the Washington Times jumped on Ruane’s statement as justification for why banning Trump was the wrong course of action for Twitter et al. Look—even the liberal ACLU thinks suspending Trump was wrong! That tells you something! Meanwhile, the kneejerk reaction of some on the left bordered on incredulity. Are you kidding me? Trump’s ban is a godsend and long overdue! Don’t rain on our parade, ACLU!
On both sides of the aisle, these protestations lack nuance, a seeming hallmark of much of today’s political discourse. Such does not seem terribly shocking coming from the right given that misleading information and misdirection are standard operating procedure for news outlets sympathetic to Trump and increasingly so the further right we go. As noted, the ACLU did not enthusiastically get behind a global social media Trump ban, but it’s not as if they gave the man a glowing review either. Speaking for the Union, Kate Ruane said that “we understand the desire to permanently suspend him.” That’s not a ringing endorsement, and Ruane pointedly mentions his sowing seeds of doubt about the democratic process. Highlighting this statement as a defense of Trump or a rebuke of Facebook and Twitter for banning him is decidedly disingenuous.
Re criticisms from the left, meanwhile, they run the risk of failing to see the forest for its digital trees. Donald Trump’s reach, president or not, should not be understated. That said, the power of Twitter and other large communications platforms to shape politics in the United States and abroad should not be undersold. We’ve seen what impact Facebook can have in the negative sense for its role in helping to spread hate speech fueling genocide in Myanmar and for allowing Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm with ties to Ted Cruz’s and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaigns, to harvest the data of tens of millions of Facebook users without their explicit consent. That’s an awful lot of authority in the hands of a privileged few entities.
In the span of a short statement, then, we can appreciate how much there is to unpack regarding this thorny issue. An arguably better tack is to consider some of the questions surrounding the debate about whether banning Trump is the right move. So let’s give it the ol’ college try, shall we?
Did Donald Trump do enough to warrant expulsion from Twitter and other media?
Um, have you been paying attention for the last half a decade? As even those who side with the ACLU’s view on these matters would tend to agree, if Trump were a regular person without his stature and his following, he would’ve been banned years ago. Google/YouTube, in particular, was rightly criticized for, in delivering its own public statement on why it was suspending the outgoing president, essentially admitting it was applying standards that already existed but weren’t being enforced until this point.
For particularly salient perspectives on this dimension, we need to look no further than those who are the primary targets of Trumpian rhetoric. Dianna E. Anderson, a non-binary, queer author/writer, took to Twitter to voice her “strong disagreement” with the ACLU on the Trump blackout. As they reason, the ACLU tends “to lean on a slippery slope argument when it comes to free speech, which ignores the power dynamic that happens when all speech is allowed without any kind of moderation.” For Anderson, fascists and Nazi-adjacent types are “fundamentally eliminationist” and argue from the cover of free speech to limit the freedoms—speech included—of everyone else. From this vantage point, removing Trump is de-platforming someone with dangerous views and making the Internet that much safer for members of minority communities.
Doesn’t this just risk making Trump a martyr of sorts and fueling accusations of anti-conservative bias by social media companies?
If one is worried about conservatives playing the victim card, then they will be all but paralyzed to inaction because these right-wingers do it all the time. All. The. Time. Trump is undoubtedly the biggest, whiniest baby of them all, but for all the barbs about the “snowflakes” on the liberal end of the spectrum, it’s conservatives who are consistently crying foul over perceived slights.
Their assertions, it should be stressed, have no basis in reality. Going back to Facebook, conservative posts are consistently among the most shared and viewed. In a similar vein, YouTube has been a haven for some truly repugnant right-wing content creators. Professional blockhead Steven Crowder got little more than a slap on the wrist for repeatedly hurling homophobic epithets and other demeaning comments at video producer and activist Carlos Maza for his work with Vox. If these companies exhibit a liberal bias, they have a funny way of doing it by letting literal white supremacists run rampant on their services.
This is where Ruane’s point about censorship of activists from vulnerable populations really comes into play. Whether specifically to silence these voices based on their politics or to preserve the appearance of “balance,” the failure of social media companies to consistently and transparently apply their stated codes of conduct or their overreliance on algorithms and other automated systems of content oversight have made at times for an inhospitable environment for leftist content creation. For smaller, independent creators, this is an especially onerous reality.
These are private companies. Isn’t it their prerogative to say who can and cannot be allowed on their service?
Whether bans like the one on Donald Trump are “censorship” is a sticking point in the ongoing conversation about the role of social media in our everyday lives, and in some respects, may be a bit of semantics. As the ACLU itself defines the word, censorship is “the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive’.” It is unconstitutional when carried out by the government. Because a certain amount of ambiguity exists with respect to censorship and First Amendment rights, often necessitating the intervention of the courts, and because freedom of expression is among our most cherished rights, cries about the censoriousness of these companies often draw the attention of people irrespective of party affiliation or lack thereof.
This is usually the point when objectors will point out that companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are private companies and can restrict who they want however they please. True as that may be and despite the risk these tech giants run by operating in uneven or heavy-handed ways, the theory that social media apps/sites should be regulated by the government as an essential public service or “utility” exists in opposition to the absolute discretion of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.
To insist on the ability of these companies to self-regulate ignores the monopolistic power they possess, the scope of their influence, and their already-exhibited inability to prevent abuses of their platforms’ capabilities. It’s why calls to “break up Big Tech” have only gotten louder in recent years and will no doubt continue to crescendo in certain circles. Heck, Elizabeth Warren made it a key component of her campaign platform. Big Tech may not be a government unto itself, but left unchecked, it stands to wield its influence to further stifle competition and undermine our democracy.
Banning the likes of Donald Trump amid cries of social media censorship and concern for the political influence of Big Tech altogether makes for a thorny discussion without easy answers. Especially after a whirlwind Trump presidency that saw real harm done to the United States and further damage to its democratic framework—a framework that has been under siege for quite some time, mind you—this can be frustrating. The Trump era is over, man! Let us kick up our feet and relax for a moment! Stop harshing our post-Inauguration mellow!
Far be it from me to throw the wettest of blankets on this celebratory mood, but beyond the urge, nay, the need to hold Joe Biden and his administration accountable for his campaign promises and pursuing policies that will benefit Americans regardless of their socioeconomic status, discussion of the effects social media has on our lives, for better and for worse, is an important talk to be having as well.
I’ve heard it said that the focus on Trump’s social media status is a distraction because it takes away from the dialog we should be reserving about stemming the monopolistic domination of companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Twitter. To a certain extent, I disagree, in that I believe the insistence of Dianna Anderson and others that fascists be de-platformed is also critical. At the same time, however, I do worry that ceding power to Big Tech, without due restriction, is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or, in this case, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Should Donald Trump have been kicked off social media? Yes, I think so. Is conservative backlash to be worried about? Perhaps, but not to the extent it precludes his removal. Lastly, is this or should this be the end of the conversation? Not in the slightest. Until the Internet becomes a place that is safe for users from minority groups and does not privilege the interests of corporations and certain influential individuals, we have a lot more work to do in ensuring a free and fair medium.