Trump, Twitter, and the Power of Big Tech: A Tangled Web

Should Donald Trump be allowed to use social media? No, not based on these companies’ guidelines. But that doesn’t mean we should let Big Tech’s power go unchecked either. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like China?

When even those who are usually outspoken about human rights toe Beijing’s line on the Hong Kong protests, you know China has a disturbing amount of influence on American businesses and U.S. politics. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Hf9631/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In case one requires a lesson about the long arm of Chinese influence in the United States, one need look no further than the recent fracas surrounding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong protests tweet.

The backlash in China to Morey’s errant post was sizable and swift. Live games and other upcoming promotional events were cancelled. Multiple Chinese sponsors announced their decision to cut business ties with the Rockets organization or the NBA outright and Chinese state television vowed to no longer air Rockets preseason games. In addition, Houston potentially faces $25 million in sponsorship boycotts and the league could see a hit to player contract monies owing to the newfound hostility.

Oof. Talk about the power of social media.

The magnitude of the Chinese reaction to criticism from one basketball executive is somewhat surprising in it of itself. All that for one tweet, which yielded an apology from Morey? What is more startling, if not unsettling, though, is how little support the Rockets GM has seemed to get in the United States.

Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets, for one, public distanced Morey’s comments from the team’s position, stating explicitly that the club is not a “political organization.” Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and billionaire businessman in his own right, also condemned Morey’s support for the Hong Kong protests, characterizing the situation as a “third-rail issue” not to be touched and voicing his displeasure with the “separatist movement” of which these protests evidently are a part. Even the league itself has offered contradictory sentiments of support and regret, on one hand defending Morey’s right to self-expression but in the same breath deeply apologizing to China and its NBA fans in Chinese.

Morey’s and the NBA’s cautionary tale, so to speak, is not the only one lately to garner media attention. When Chung Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player who goes by “Blitzchung,” made a show of support for the Hong Kong protests during a Grandmasters tournament, he was removed from the competition, had his prize money forfeited, and was banned from tournament play by Blizzard, the game’s maker, for a year. Blizzard has since reduced the length of the ban and reinstated his winnings, but not before a public outcry earned the company strong criticism and spawned talk of boycotts and protests.

Apple and Google sparked outrage as well when they removed apps used by protesters or that were otherwise evocative of the protests/were vaguely supportive. Apple indicated it acted because the app in question allegedly was being used to target law enforcement officials and Hong Kong residents, a charge disputed by protest supporters. Google claims it removed The Revolution of Our Times for capitalizing on a sensitive event such as conflict.

Sound business practice or kowtowing to a censorious Chinese communist regime widely regarded as a human rights abuser in the name of money? Who’s pulling the strings? These are the kinds of questions major corporations like Apple, Blizzard, Google, and the NBA face in the wake of decisions that appear to favor the latter condition. It doesn’t help their cases that their various responses were made so quickly, and for Blizzard, arguably so disproportionately, at least initially. If what some believe is true, it’s not a question of whether these companies will jump, but how high.

This is part of the problem with China, a country that is a major player on the world stage and is seemingly unhappy with the amount of control it has in global affairs, including what people say about it and how. As Bill Bishop, author of the newsletter Sinocism, writes in an entry about the Morey-NBA flap with China entitled “The NBA’s poisoned China chalice,” Beijing doesn’t just want to be part of the conversation—it wants to lead the discourse. Bishop writes:

The broader context for this crisis is that the [Chinese Communist Party] has long pushed to increase its “international discourse power 国际话语权“, and as with many things its efforts have intensified under Xi. The idea is that China’s share of international voice is not commensurate with its growing economic, military and cultural power and that the Party should have much more control over the global discussion of all things Chinese, in any language, anywhere.

The Party is taking at least a two-track approach to rectifying this problem. On the one hand it is launching, buying, co-opting and coercing overseas media outlets. On the other it uses the power of the Chinese market to co-opt and coerce global businesses, their executives and other elite voices.

From the looks of it, these obeisant acts on the part of aforementioned American multinationals fit the second category. Never mind trying to influence politicians or meddle with elections. This takes a direct route to the heart of U.S. business, and including executives like Adam Silver and Tim Cook, nonetheless impacts influential figures who may yet have a voice in the domestic political discussion. Paired with a multi-million-dollar media campaign designed to shape public opinion and policy in the United States, China is anything but a passive player in the global politics of power.

Such is why, for the spotlight that has been shone on Russian interference in our elections and hacking of campaign infrastructures, the shadow China casts on American commerce (not to mention the amount of our debt it holds and potential attempts to steal intellectual property and other secrets) seemingly hasn’t had its due consideration. If China’s flexing to minimize criticism of its handling of the Hong Kong protests is any indication, the United States and other relevant world powers are highly susceptible to Beijing’s reactionary demands, right down to their more socially-conscious participants. As citizens and conscientious consumers, the scope of Chinese authority should concern us.


For those who have been sounding the alarm about China for years, that it might be something like Beijing’s knee-jerk retaliation against the NBA and the Houston Rockets organization or Blizzard’s Hearthstone debacle to affect the public consciousness is striking, although one supposes it may as well be one of these circumstances. In either of these instances, the shift in attention from the masses simply may have finally intersected with an area of importance to them, a milieu they conceivably enjoyed irrespective of their political leanings. Certainly, the duration and visibility of the Hong Kong protests helps in this regard.

Regardless of why there is such a strong focus all of a sudden on corporate management of the China-Hong Kong relationship, the realization across industries that politics does, in fact, play a role and compels executive leadership to take a meaningful stand is a critical one. Before, NBA figures such as Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and Steve Kerr known for being outspoken on political and social issues in the United States might have gotten a pass for equivocating on the subject of China. Now, they’re getting their due criticism, or in the case of LeBron, having their jersey burned in a protest within the Hong Kong protests. To say the paradigm has changed would seem to be an understatement.

CNBC contributor Jake Novak, for one, marvels at how the NBA’s China fiasco has struck a nerve when years of reporting and pundits’ observations about how China hasn’t lived up to its promises to be a model state haven’t hit their mark, calling the ensuing fallout “just the wake-up call the world needed.”

As Novak explains, despite increasing economic engagement with the West, China, in numerous ways, has become or has tried to become more repressive and secretive. With Google’s help, no less, it worked on a government-censored search engine under the code name “Dragonfly” that only this past summer was terminated. It holds millions of people, many of them members of ethnic minority groups, in “counter-extremism centers” or “re-education camps,” and otherwise tramples on human rights, brutally punishing dissent. Militarily, China has built its forces to antagonistic levels, making bold shows of force repeatedly in the South China Sea before its neighbors. In addition, China’s lack of transparency concerning its international lending practices obscures the true level of debt (and therefore, risk) the global economy faces. This is the business partner countless American multinationals have chosen, a partner that fancies itself a victim in countless scenarios despite a pattern of aggression.

Of course, America is no saint when it comes to observation of human rights and respecting the autonomy of foreign lands, a notion much more glaring under would-be dictator Donald Trump. Attempted moral equivalencies by Kerr et al. aside, China’s quest to insinuate itself across state lines and continental divides is a problem not just for the U.S., but the world. Furthermore, it’s one that corporate America can be instrumental in addressing.

So, getting to the central question: how do we solve a problem like China? As James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy, quoted in Bishop’s post instructs, part of the solution lies in boycotts, public shaming, and protests against company leadership that does business with China’s repressive regime under Xi Jinping. Also, Congress will likely have to intercede, calling on executives to testify about the deals they’ve made and threatening contracts and tax breaks for failure to comply with existing laws or for otherwise unsatisfactory answers.

Such is the good news: that we can take concrete steps to hold China and its enablers accountable for their misdeeds. The bad news? We’re, ahem, relying on consumer political participation and the efficacy of Congress, neither of which is a guarantee. As Novak suggests, the NBA is unlikely to be crippled by boycotts any more than the NFL was by fans upset over Colin Kaepernick. Bishop, in response to Palmer’s sentiments, is “not optimistic” on either front. Amid an emphasis on social responsibility—feigned or not—by chief executives and tough talk from politicians, the talk of the Chinese market’s money would appear to carry further.

In terms of solving our China “problem,” then, we may ultimately be more successful catching a cloud and pinning it down, or holding a moonbeam in our hand.

Is Political Correctness Really Bringing America Down?

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Donald Trump believes America doesn’t have time for political correctness. On that assumption, however, Trump and those who think like him are very incorrect. (Photo Credit: Getty Images News/Scott Olson)

In my last post, I wrote about Jordan Peterson and how I believe, alongside others, that his rhetoric about the excesses of the left can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Naturally, my thoughts were summarily dismissed, my credibility was challenged, and I was told by numerous individuals, presumably Peterson’s supporters, that my references and I completely misunderstood Peterson and his theories, and that I needed to watch one of his lectures in its entirety or read one of his books—that is, hear it straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth—to fully comprehend what he’s talking about. In other words, it’s not Peterson’s fault he’s so misunderstood—it’s the fault of the liberal media who bashes his beliefs and me for being such a leftist dum-dum.

Leftist dum-dum as I may be, I do thank those who pointed me to the Munk Debates, a forum billed by the organization itself as “the world’s preeminent public debating forum.” The most recent debate, held back in May, involved the aforementioned Mr. Peterson; academic, author, preacher, and radio host Michael Eric Dyson; actor, comedian, presenter, and writer Stephen Fry; and author and blogger Michelle Goldberg. The theme was Political Correctness, under the tagline, “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress.” Dyson and Goldberg represented the Pro side of the debate. Fry and Peterson comprised the Con half.

The merits of this particular debate can be questioned; Lord knows they have been, from my cursory reading of various reactions to the two-hour-long event. A common charge from reviewers was that, for a forum about political correctness, political correctness wasn’t discussed all that much, a sentiment that Fry, one of the participants, expressed during the actual proceedings.

The discourse wasn’t entirely civil, either. During a particularly heated exchange on the subject of white privilege, Jordan Peterson displayed a sense of irritation, challenging his confrères on the opposite side of the debate to quantify as to what percentage he has benefited from his white privilege, and to ask how he should recompense others for this advantage. Michael Eric Dyson countered by suggesting that white privilege is not something quantifiable, and pivoted to questioning Peterson on his tone: “Why you mad, bruh?” Or, to paraphrase Dyson in his subsequent comments, for all your success as an author and public intellectual, why are you so intent to play the part of the “mean mad white man”?

Unfortunately, comments like Dyson’s—valid or otherwise—have sort of overshadowed the larger conversation about political correctness as the night’s central point. Arguments about whether or not political correctness was adequately addressed also seem to be blown out of proportion. As Michelle Goldberg contended, part of the problem about talking about “political correctness” is how it’s defined and used. That is, political correctness is difficult to define as something discrete, and can be employed by its champions in service to respecting people’s differences or deployed as a weapon to attack liberal politics.

For Dyson, meanwhile, the outrage about political correctness is part of a reactionary attitude for whites in trying to come to grips with the need to cede power to minority groups. When nearly all white straight Christian males were in charge, per Dyson, political correctness wasn’t a thing. Thus, to speak about political correctness, one must acknowledge issues pertaining to race and gender, among other characteristics, as well as the need for larger conversations about these concepts.

Before I get to noting how attendees scored the debate, let’s first get into some background about political correctness itself. Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that languages and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” From the apparent origins of its current use with the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the term has since been coopted in conservative circles as a pejorative to express discontentment with a perceived liberal/progressive orthodoxy in schools and especially at colleges and universities. As many liberal commentators view this alternative use of “PC,” it’s a segue to discrediting the views of “the Left,” as amorphous as that identifier may be.

In the context of the present “culture wars” between liberals and conservatives, the battle over political correctness has taken on new meaning in the era of Donald Trump, a man who, by most accounts, has eschewed traditional political norms as an unabashed political outsider, and according to fact-checkers, who have had no shortage of work during his tenure as President of the United States, is generally incorrect in what he states to be incontrovertibly true. Since then, in the eyes of many onlookers, these two sides have become only that more entrenched in defending their views from perceived attacks from the other side, and for that matter, from those within their own ranks.

Indeed, some people likely felt a sense of betrayal when they found out Stephen Fry, a liberal-leaning homosexual Jew, was to accompany Jordan Peterson on stage arguing against political correctness as progress. For Fry, who acknowledged that he and Peterson may have their differences of opinion—which may be putting it mildly—his argument against political correctness is that it doesn’t work, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and of the growing influence of white nationalism around the globe. As Fry believes, it only succeeds in promoting a backlash from destructive elements on the right and far-right, as well as alienating people by making them unsure about how to act, nervous about how to speak, and unafraid to be creative or experimental for fear of rebuke.

As for Trump, he has addressed the subject of political correctness directly, perhaps most notably in the first Republican debate of the 2016 election season in Cleveland. As Trump put it:

I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.

So, to put the question point-blank, does the United States simply not have time for political correctness? And does it do more harm than good, or does it simply not work?

Certainly, there are those who would opine that political correctness is a deleterious force, that it does not make for constructive dialogs. One such opponent of PC culture, Michael Rectenwald, professor of Global Liberal Studies at NYU, believes the fundamental flaw of political correctness is it necessitates political correction.

As Rectenwald recently argued, the necessity to correct incorrect behavior involves a imposition of what is deemed to be right, and hearkens back to earlier invocations of the term as used in Soviet Russia and Maoist China. As he also insists, these allusions are not made merely for shock value, but because of the totalitarian impulses that likewise lie behind enforcing political correctness. Rectenwald writes:

I mention the Soviet and Sino-Communist sources of political correctness not to invoke a Red Scare but rather to note that the contemporary “social justice” movement is marked by the same impulses. Former Soviet and Maoist Chinese citizens recall a system under which verbal spontaneity and skepticism could be fatal. During our soft cultural revolution, those accused of ideological deviation — such as Google’s former employee, James Damore — while neither tortured or killed, are sent to the metaphorical gulags of public censure and unemployment.

On the specific case of James Damore, while it’s certainly the case that his memo was misrepresented by the media as being overtly “anti-diversity” (Damore actually offers suggestions for how Google’s handling of diversity issues might be improved), and while Google perhaps overreacted by firing him, to say that Damore was terminated merely for “ideological deviation” belies the offense that numerous women within the company took in relation to the circulation of this internal memo, and fails to consider that Google and its CEO Sundar Pichai found portions of the memo to be in violation of the company’s Code of Conduct and professed that these offending segments “cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Upon the memo’s contents going viral, numerous critics objected to the validity of the science contained within and regarded it as bigotry dressed up as empirically-derived evidence. In short, Pichai and others did not have a problem with Damore questioning specific policies at Google, but in doing so in a way perceived to be discriminatory. Indeed, prior to Damore withdrawing his complaint before the National Labor Relations Board, an NLRB lawyer found the company was within its rights to fire him based on his use of discriminatory language.

As for the invocation of murderous communist regimes, this is quite a comparison to make, and seems just as well suited to come from one of Jordan Peterson’s tirades against “postmodern neo-Marxism.” How does “public censure and unemployment” even come close to being “tortured or killed”? Sure, efforts should be made by Google and other employers to not disproportionately harm one’s image or livelihood in the event of a firing like James Damore’s. Such are unfortunate consequences. They’re not, however, the kind of things that, you know, get outlawed in the Geneva Convention. Rectenwald’s characterization here smacks of hyperbole.

Rectenwald’s other evidence for the growing totalitarianism of North American colleges and universities seems rooted in his personal experience. As he alleges, NYU strongly rebuked him for his “mere questioning of social justice ideology,” essentially forcing him to take a paid medical leave, and faculty members subjecting him to all sorts of racist and sexist slurs. That Rectenwald tweeted anti-Left sentiments any number of times using the handle @antipcnyuprof is not up for debate; the man admitted as much in an interview with the school newspaper. That he was the target of defamatory statements may be true, and I’m not about to question the validity of his claim here.

That he was pushed into taking leave, though, appears highly questionable. According to E-mail correspondence between Rectenwald and Fred Schwarzbach, dean of liberal studies at the university, Rectenwald specifically requested a leave of absence, and Schwarzbach indicated his dismay at how Rectenwald characterized his treatment by NYU to the media. At best, Rectenwald appears to be mistaken in his depiction of how events unfolded, and at worst, is purposely twisting them to serve the designs of his narrative.

Michael Rectenwald’s treatises on the pitfalls of totalitarian political correctness are, of course, not the only source for this type of content, so far be it from me to suggest that his questionable logical connections mean that his side of the debate has necessarily lost. Before we dispense with his case, however, it is worth noting the way in which he has been given a platform for his discontent. Breitbart and FOX News, perhaps predictably, latched onto the story as a case of SJW activism gone wrong, and Rectenwald has also gotten exposure on Tucker Carlson’s show, as well as in The Washington Post and in YouTube videos alongside—you guessed it!—Jordan Peterson.

His exposure is perhaps not on the level of Mr. James Damore, whose termination from Google earned him an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, as well as interviews with, among others, Ben Shapiro, Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, and—right again!—Jordan Peterson, but you get the idea. As with Peterson making waves for vowing not to comply with legislation on the use of gender-neutral pronouns, there seems to be more than just an issue of free speech at hand here.

At least for the moment, let’s pause and swing over to the other side of the debate fence. Mark Hannah, a staffer on the John Kerry and Barack Obama presidential campaigns, wrote a piece for TIME Magazine that characterizes political correctness not as the opponent of “unvarnished truth-telling,” but as the counterpart to carelessness toward other people’s attitudes and beliefs.

In thinking along these lines, Hannah invokes the presidential campaign of one Donald Trump (the column was published prior to the 2016 election), and highlights how the use of precise language by Obama vs. Trump’s free-wheeling approach gets conflated with views on political correctness. In particular, Hannah contrasts Obama’s refusal to refer to “radical Islam” with Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and political correctness gone amok, recognizing Obama’s deliberateness as strategic rather than fawningly considerate. Hannah writes:

Conservatives might tell us Obama is “politically correct” and Trump “tells it like it is.” But when it comes to the debate over the phrase “radical Islam,” Obama is playing chess and Trump is playing dodge ball. If politics is about strategy, political correctness is arming oneself with a sound strategy while political incorrectness is strategic recklessness.

As Hannah details, Obama himself dismissed concerns about political correctness in avoiding the term “radical Islam,” saying that his careful use of language is about defeating extremism and hampering recruitment efforts. Reckless characterizations, on the other hand, invite alienation of our allies in the war on terror and motivation of adversarial groups like ISIS.

While criticizing Trump and his ilk, Hannah also stresses that perceptions about the right from the left on the subject of political correctness might be similarly confused. From his anecdotal experience as a lecturer, Hannah finds that while anti-PC stances may be a reaction for some in not being able to espouse their personal prejudices, for others, it’s a mistrust of deliberate speech as the tool of high-falutin’ politicians:

Many on the left think conservatives demonize political correctness because they resent having to suppress their own prejudices. That might be true for some. But as someone who teaches a college class on political rhetoric, I’ve come to appreciate that anti-PC attitudes are part of a longer tradition of suspicion toward carefully calibrated language. Throughout history, our species has tended to distrust people who have a knack for political oratory. Part of this stems from the fact that most people are not good public speakers at the same time most people have an affinity for people who are like them. This is something psychologists call “homophily,” and is the reason so many of us tend to want to vote for somebody we’d “like to have a beer with” rather than someone smarter than us.

Looking at the 2016 election post-mortem, while race definitely played a part in people’s votes (how else to explain, for example, the wide disparity between white evangelicals, a majority of whom voted for Trump, and evangelicals of color, a majority of whom sided with Hillary Clinton?), this suspicion of more polished orators like Obama was almost certainly a factor as well, favoring the “Make America Great Again” candidate. It’s a tendency, Hannah tells, with origins as far back as ancient Greece, rooted in distaste for the use of ornate language as a means of courting votes for public office or avoiding jail time. Given his scandal-plagued tenure as president, this sounds more and more like Trump as we go along.

As Hannah writes in closing, though, the use of political correctness is in line with American tradition, back to the country’s very formative days. Political correctness was not viewed as a way to “stifle insensitive speech,” but a manner of speaking for those “trying to out-compete that speech in a free and open exchange.” For Trump and others to complain about PC culture, therefore, is to blame the free marketplace of ideas a professed Republican like he should ideally embrace, or, to borrow a sports analogy, to “petulantly” argue with the umpire. In professional baseball, that’s the kind of thing that can get you thrown out of the game. Trump, alas, is very much still in the game, but there’s every reason to think he stands to do something that will get him removed from office. In theory, even his Republican supporters have their limits.


Going back to the Munk Debate on Political Correctness, it’s worth noting that while 87% of people in attendance expressed an openness to changing their opinion on the matter at hand, prior to the debate, a 64% majority agreed with the Con side, a majority that grew to 70% following its inclusion. Without detailed demographic information or follow-up questions, it’s hard to know precisely what the audience believed and why they voted like they did.

It’s possible they believed, as they are entitled to, that political correctness really is a force that retards societal progress. I surmise that, lost in these statistics, is an affinity for the Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry that only grew in the wake of Michael Eric Dyson’s “mean mad white man” comment. After all, Peterson and Fry have quite the followings, and admittedly, Dyson and Michelle Goldberg were previously unknown to me. Fry’s self-deprecating humor, too, was one of the highlights of the debate, and provided a nice balance against Peterson’s nearly-relentless seriousness.

Then again, perhaps the uptick can simply be attributed to the sentiment that Peterson and Fry won the debate. After reading a sample of online comments related to viewing the debate remotely, a number of users appear to have indicated Dyson’s comments about Peterson were the point that decided that the Pro side lost the debate, because that’s when it got personal and Dyson’s views lost all weight. It’s difficult to know to what these random commenters genuinely subscribe, or what biases—conscious or unconscious—might inform their assessments of the validity of the onstage arguments.

Wrong or right, the timbre of Dyson’s diatribe was a direct response to Peterson’s tone in asking for a percentage of how much his white privilege has helped him, one of dismissiveness and vitriol. In this respect, you could say Dyson took the bait offered by a clearly-vexed Peterson. Or, you could claim Dyson’s just a “racist,” as numerous commenters did. Never mind the idea that racism implies power and invokes the institutions behind it. In today’s modern political parlance, for many, racism and prejudice are one and the same. Such may be a false (if not dangerous) equivalency.

I’m also not sure how well the percentages of those surveyed at the debate reflect the opinions of Americans or Canadians at large. Certainly, to have someone more liberally inclined such as Stephen Fry arguing against the widespread use of political correctness may be telling that objection to this convention can come from people on either side of the political aisle and in between. Someone on the left, for instance, may balk at the extension of the acronym LGBT to include categories like queer, intersex, asexual, and pansexual because it feels, to them, more like alphabet soup than a community. Political correctness must be adaptive to changing social norms, and requires that participants be capable of adapting with it. For even the most PC-minded among us, it can be a challenge.

This notwithstanding, and irrespective of the Munk Debate audience tallies, political correctness is something worth striving for. Even if its opposition doesn’t reflect an underlying annoyance at having to use preferred terms or, worse, a genuine loathing for someone or their constituent group, political correctness still facilitates an open exchange of ideas and indicates a willingness to deal with the other person on amicable, equitable terms. Moreover, to recapitulate Mark Hannah’s points about the values of our forefathers, political correctness is very much in the American way. As suspect as Barack Obama’s precise language made him seem to some, Donald Trump’s political incorrectness only reflects his lack of preparation and his cruelty. That’s not politically useful—it’s a liability and morally objectionable.

On top of all this, to address Fry’s concerns, political correctness does work. As tempting as it may be to side with social anarchy, political correctness provides guidance on how to act in situations involving mixed-group interactions, and on the plane of creativity, PC language does not stifle innovation, but allows it to grow by imposing constraints, whereas “blue-sky thinking” can give rise to deleterious phenomena like bigotry, groupthink, and misattributions of truth merely to those that speak loudest or most often (for more information, attend this excellent piece by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman and the appended Cornell study within the text). In short, political correctness works in any number of life situations, and in the era of #MeToo, rejecting it for fear of reprimand from some objector real or imagined is a rather hollow justification.

Political correctness isn’t standing in the way of progress, or making the world less safe, or killing comedy, or coddling our youth. It’s a useful method of communication and representation which connotes our ability to honor those different from us and understand where they’re coming from, and to grease the wheels of strategic advancement rather than to invite counterproductive, reckless behavior. To those of us like Donald Trump who insist we don’t have the time for political correctness, one may easily counter that it’s perhaps exactly the time for it, and something we need now more than ever.

To view this post as it appears on Citizen Truth, click here. Citizen Truth is an independent and alternative media organization dedicated to finding the truth, ending the left-right paradigm, and widening the scope of viewpoints represented in media and our daily conversations. For more on CT, please visit citizentruth.org.

Do Social Media Companies Care about Curbing Hate Speech and Abuse?

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Abuse, harassment, hate speech, and threats of violence are all too common online and through social media. It’s not as if tech companies are unaware of this, either, and this makes their inaction all the more frustrating. (Image retrieved from kdvr.com.)

Social media has the power to bring people together in ways we could have only dreamt of centuries or even decades ago. It allows users to share intimate moments and milestones with their family and friends. It affords people a way to re-connect with those with whom they’ve lost touch, or simply to connect with loved ones in times of crisis. It permits you to, um, Poke people and send game requests to individuals you met some five years ago in an Eastern Religions course in college. OK, so not all uses of social media are as worthwhile as others, but for everything from breaking news stories to umpteen baby pictures, social media services help foster connections between people across cable lines and potentially across great distances as well as across demographic lines. In the ability of these apps/sites to bring people together, however, we realize this connectivity has the potential to be a blessing and a curse. While we would presume most users use sites like Facebook and Google and Twitter with the intention of spreading goodwill and cheer—or at least seeking sympathy when they are not so full of cheer—there are those who seem to use social media for no other purpose than spreading hate, harassing and intimidating others, and deliberately picking fights. I’m sure you have encountered your fair share of Internet trolls, from the moderately pesky ones to those who challenge you to come find them at their house and see if you still feel like making your same arguments. In this respect, social media tends to feel like a minefield across which you are advised to tread lightly for fear of igniting an explosive situation.

Keeping with the theme of confrontational discourse between individuals of disparate personal stories and viewpoints, another byproduct of the interconnectedness of our world, alongside users’ relative anonymity, is that people will readily advocate and say things online they wouldn’t imagine saying out loud in everyday life given the apparent lack of impunity for their actions. Here is where the epithets, insults, mockery, and threats really start flying. Given the cloak of limited visibility the Internet provides, individual users can set forth all sorts of body-shaming, homo- and trans-phobic, politically bigoted, racist, sexist, vulgar, xenophobic, and otherwise discriminatory or unsavory language. And when they band together to form a unified front of nastiness, the collective hate they spew can be a destructive, alienating force. Numerous high-profile users in recent memory have announced their departure from social media (at least temporarily), citing abuse or threats against them and their family as motivating factors. The likes of Leslie Jones and Ed Sheeran are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, at that. We all know the fabled notion sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. These are different times, however, and depending on the mental make-up of the recipient of these proverbial sticks and stones, the brunt may be hard to bear indeed, if not impossible. Suicides among teens and preteens have become all too prevalent outcomes from prolonged, targeted cyberbullying. In some cases, the abuse continues on social media even after the individual has taken his or her own life.

As with the sale and use of guns in mass shootings, the issue of liability for the manufacturer/provider in online interactions via social media is a sticky one. In a society as litigious as ours and otherwise accustomed to scapegoating, the impetus is frequently on assigning culpability on someone or something. With respect to the former, and depending on one’s point of view, it’s the fault of the maker of the gun for creating a dangerous weapon that could be bought and handled by a general public ill-equipped to operate it safely; it’s the fault of the parents of the child for not taking better care to safeguard the firearm; it’s the fault of the gun lobby for preventing sensible gun reform; it’s the fault of the anti-gun activists that we don’t have more guns in schools to prevent such a tragedy. Round and round we go in the Blame Game—where we stop, nobody knows. With social media and cyberbullying, on one hand, there is the idea that today’s young people and celebrities are too pampered and thin-skinned. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Besides, no one forced these kids to keep using social media in the face of the abuse. Shouldn’t their parents have been watching what their kids were doing anyway?

On the other hand, meanwhile, whereas mass shootings may have a rather short preamble in terms of shooters making their intentions known to friends or family, with targeted harassment on social media, the patterns of abuse can take place over a protracted period of time. Granted, when minors are the subject of cyberbullying, from the user perspective, their parent(s) or guardian(s) may not comprehend the scope of the torment their child faces, especially when he or she is less than forthcoming about the nature of the problem. From across the screen, however, the purveyors of various popular social media services can witness what is going on, and this tension between creating an environment where users can feel safe in their online interactions and maximizing traffic to associated apps and sites is at the crux of the matter. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter find themselves performing a balancing act between safeguarding their audiences and maintaining the appearance of being unbiased and hospitable to all users. This wouldn’t seem like such a tough tug-of-war but for a rejection of diversity, multiculturalism and political correctness on the far right, as well as an apparent growing tendency toward hostility in discussions where personalities and viewpoints clash regardless of political affiliation.

In talking about the tightrope that social media companies walk with respect to fair play vs. revenue—a dilemma that quite generally seems to be faced by corporate entities, of which the primary goal is profit/expansion, and of which social responsibility is a more recent derivation (and hopefully not an afterthought)—this implies that the big names in the industry are capable and willing enough to err on the side of caution for the sake of their most vulnerable users. But are they really? This is where there is room for debate in online circles, for many would allege these content providers are not doing enough to thwart cyberbullying and the dissemination of questionable content. Brianna Provenzano, staff writer at Mic, would tend to agree, a subject of angry, hate-filled messages herself. Recently, Provenzano had dared to ask Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative provocateur and all-around dickhead, if he got an invite to the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards—because MTV says they sure as hell didn’t ask for him to be there. Whereupon Yiannopoulos kindly told Provenzano to “F**k off,” posted their E-mail exchange on his Facebook page, and let his followers do the work for him. Provenzano describes the situation thusly:

Milo hadn’t called for blood outright, but the angry mob showed up anyway. The sound you hear when you kick the hornet’s nest in Milo-land is an angry crescendo of bees in Fred Perry polos, crawling out of their social media honeycombs to sling insults about how your full name sounds like two cheeses alongside more venomous darts about your intellect, your body and your career.

Yiannopoulos has 2.3 million followers on Facebook, and after he posted my email, the swarm infiltrated my Twitter and my Facebook inbox too. A few stragglers found their way into my Instagram comments. A phone call with Facebook representatives yielded no action. They told me they’re aware Yiannopoulos has figured out a way to game the system, pulling certain levers to summon his goons without running afoul of their harassment policies. But Facebook’s guidelines, as they currently exist, are cut-and-dry: Milo might be indirectly inciting harassment, but as long as he doesn’t call for it explicitly, his speech is protected. The post is still up.

The bad news, though, is that his followers seem to be taking his lead. Beneath the screengrab of our email exchange, one commenter wrote, “His minions are emailing her at this very moment, detailing how they’re going to rape her.” Is alluding to my rape the same thing as calling for it outright? Free-speech guidelines are tricky like that. The bottom line: Though internet trolls are evolving, Facebook’s harassment protections are not.

Talk about walking a fine line. Whereas sites like Facebook are concerned with walking on eggshells so as not to alienate potential drivers of traffic, someone like Milo Yiannopoulos is walking the line on Facebook’s harassment policy by not telling his supporters to avenge him for some perceived slight, but nonetheless achieving the desire effect by letting them know how he was so aggrieved, posting Brianna Provenzano’s contact information in doing so, and letting the chips fall where they may. This hearkens back to our central discussion of accountability, and the ensuing dialog is a tricky one, indeed. True, Milo isn’t pulling the trigger. All the same, he’s effectively giving his followers the loaded gun and telling them where to shoot. As for Facebook, if it’s supposed to be the police, it’s hiding behind a rationale of insufficient evidence of a crime. Very clearly, though, the intent to cause ill will is there. What’s more, Facebook itself seems to indicate that it understands that’s what Yiannopoulous is doing, but that its hands are tied. Where the analogy ends, however, is in the notion that Facebook not only enforces the rules, but writes them too. As such, it is within its power to either adopt stricter policies against harassment and abuse within its platform, or to interpret their guidelines more broadly and consider that inaction under the guise of neutrality carries risk in its own right.

The unfortunate pattern for social media apps/sites given evidence of abuse seems to be this: 1) individual becomes target for verbal attacks and threats of bodily harm; 2) social media providers stand idly by while “evidence” accumulates; 3) public outcry forces attention to the harassment; 4) by drawing attention to the issue, abuse increases; 5) content provider is forced to intervene by suspending accounts or some other method of remediation. What makes this cycle especially unfortunate is that aspects of it are by no means guaranteed. For one, public outcry is obviously more likely for public figures and people of relative renown. As for social media sites swooping in and coming to the rescue, so to speak, this decision may come too late—if it comes at all. In Brianna Provenzano’s case, without writing about her situation, it is unlikely anyone beyond close friends and family and loyal Mic readers would know she has been met with all kinds of invectives at the hands of rabid alt-righters. In addition, as of this writing and her writing, it appears she will see no meaningful resolution from Facebook. Indeed, to have that happen would the best-case scenario, and even then, it necessitates some sort of wrongdoing on the part of another party—potentially over a considerable span and from many quasi-anonymous sources.

As Provenzano is keen to observe, female reporters are frequent targets of abuse merely for reporting on the kind of misogynistic abuse faced by other women, thereby creating an awful circle by which the writer becomes the subject. As she also observes, women of color and members of the LGBT community tend to be hit particularly hard by harassment over social media, and in some cases, it is the content providers themselves who discriminate against members of minority groups or fail to properly moderate content in a way that projects fairness for all users. In an illustration of how seemingly broken Facebook’s system of content moderation is, black activist Ijeoma Oluo posted a tongue-in-cheek comment about going to a Cracker Barrel for the first time, seeing a bunch of white people in cowboy hats, and wondering if they’d “let [her] black ass walk out of there.”

Apparently, a number of people who read her entry didn’t take kindly to her commentary on race relations, for before long, she began to receive a torrent of hate-filled messages. Days’ worth of abuse ensued, with Oluo taking screenshots of the kinds of epithets hurled her way and reporting the harassment to Facebook. At long last, though, the company and its content moderators intervened. There was only one small problem: it was Oluo who had her account suspended for posting the evidence of her abuse. Facebook representatives later apologized for what they characterized as a mistake, but by then, the damage was done. Besides, Ijeoma Oluo’s experience is not an isolated incident, and is evocative of a running theme: that of social media companies being slow or otherwise inadequate to respond to reports of abuse at the hands of other users. It would appear, at least in this instance, that Facebook was unable to handle the magnitude and truth of what was happening any more than Oluo’s tormentors could accept the reality and scope of racism in America.


In the closing of her piece, Brianna Provenzano notes that sites like Facebook have acted when members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and their ilk have led campaigns encouraging targeted abuse against specific users or otherwise have promoted a racist agenda. Twitter, for example, suspended Milo Yiannopoulos’ account after he directed his followers to attack Leslie Jones with racist images and words. Both GoDaddy and Google Domains dropped The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi online publication, after the violence at Charlottesville. These actions took place only after days or longer of offenders spewing their hate, however, and only with the requisite amount of public backlash demanding these service providers do something. From the companies’ perspective, what truly warranted intervention were the negative reputation they stood to receive from all the bad publicity and the consequential loss of revenue associated with their loss of standing. As Provenzano puts it re Facebook:

As long as capitalism is in charge, the historically marginalized groups hurt most by Facebook’s slipshod harassment protections should expect to continue to bear the burden of a failing system.

In other words, the bottom is line is just that: about the companies’ bottom lines. Concerning another recent iteration of the social commentary vs. corporate interests at the intersection of race relations, ESPN personality Jemele Hill made news for a series of Tweets she authored related to President Donald Trump, in which she unequivocally labeled Trump a white supremacist who has surrounded himself with other white supremacists and whose rise can be attributed to white supremacy. Predictably, a backlash occurred from Trump supporters and from the man himself, with many calling for her suspension or outright firing, and with POTUS desiring an apology from the network in addition to whatever Hill might have offered. In the end, it was Hill alone who issued an apology for “crossing the line” with her political opinions.

For many of us discerning individuals, however, Hill’s statements weren’t particularly controversial. This is to say that calling Donald Trump a white supremacist surrounded by white supremacists and supported by them isn’t really that much of a stretch. Lord knows what Trump feels and believes deep down, but after a point, it doesn’t matter when he’s ginning up racists and white nationalists. Jemele Hill is ostensibly right on these points, and thus it would appear her most grievous sin is working for a corporation—recall ESPN exists under the Disney Corp. banner—that squelches opinions when they fear they could alienate a certain segment of their viewership/readership. And just imagine what kind of abuse Hill will be subject to now that she is in the spotlight and in the crosshairs of Internet trolls. When the angry mob threatens to pull its dollars away, corporate America has signaled, by and large, that it will kowtow to its wishes.

With advances in computer and mobile phone technology, use of social media platforms has exploded over the last half-decade, and for the most part, the benefits of these media in terms of professional networking and socialization are to be celebrated. For many companies who provide social media interfaces, however, their ability and willingness to curb cyberbullying and online harassment has lagged behind the industry’s apparent growth, and this reality detracts from the user experience for the general public, regardless of gender, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, or other identifying factor(s). To ask potential targets for abuse to “grin and bear it” or to “just log off” is as impractical as it is an abdication of duty for the companies who are supposed to provide a safe space for their subscribers as a function of their conduct policies. Simply put, if social media giants like Facebook and Twitter wish to show they truly care about cracking down against hate speech and other forms of abuse, they need to do better—or risk losing more than just individual celebrities from their ranks.