Long arm of Big Tech

Published January 20, 2021
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

DONALD J. Trump spent the last days of his presidency sulking in the residential part of the White House. According to the White House press corps, he had isolated himself from nearly everyone and busied himself in making a list of his enemies, which included his own vice president. One of the few people seen visiting him was a man who has made a small fortune selling pillows on television and is a consumer of the most bizarre conspiracy theories possible.

Outside, Washington, D.C. was a ghost town peopled only by National Guardsmen called up for duty to defend the Capitol against the angry mobs unleashed by the president’s caustic vitriol. Even these men were not quite trustworthy; experts appeared on television to discuss how these troops were being vetted yet again to make sure they were not secret supporters of Trump who would compromise the new president’s security. For the first time in 152 years, a sitting US president would not attend the inauguration of his successor, a tradition that marks the peaceful transfer of power.

Of all the humiliations that Donald Trump has been subjected to, however, the worst has come not from his political opponents. It came not on the day of the Capitol insurrection or even the impeachment that was to follow, but on the day Twitter suspended his account. In a seeming instant, the president who had whetted his supporters to fight hard, feeding them a steady diet of lies, conspiracy theories and deceit for years, had no means to get in touch with them.

Donald Trump himself was likely stunned when this finally happened. For years, his detractors had been hounding social media giants Twitter and Facebook to boot him out from their platforms. None of their entreaties had worked; Trump kept lying, riling up supporters, destroying careers, firing high-level cabinet members, threatening other politicians, instigating his supporters to deliver death threats, and his accounts remained untouched. Even when he was actively spreading lies before and after the election, lies about mail-in voting, then lies about who had won, and lies about rigging, Twitter and Facebook did nothing.

How many people would still be alive if Twitter and Facebook had denied Trump a platform to spread lies about Covid-19 a year ago?

That changed after the Capitol Hill insurrection. Facebook and Twitter finally jettisoned Trump. When an irate president tried to access the official POTUS account and started to tweet from there, that account was also suspended. In a belated purge, the two platforms also began to delete pages and other accounts that had been pushing for initial or further attacks on the Capitol.

Extreme right-wing Trump supporters, members of militia groups like the Boogaloo Boys or neo-Nazi groups like The Proud Boys and many more supporters immediately cried foul. Twitter and Facebook were engaging in censorship, they claimed, trying to quash speech on the right even as they let left-oriented groups operate without any restrictions. The argument reflected just how far Trump supporters are from the one-time conservatives that used to make up the Republican Party. The latter group, with many members who have long turned away from Donald Trump, would know, for instance, that freedom of speech and censorship rights do not apply to private companies but to governments. Free enterprise, a cherished conservative principle, stands for the freedom of Twitter and Facebook, both private companies, to kick out whomever they wish.

Annoyed at being booted out, Trump’s MAGA supporters turned to a different quasi-Twitter service called Parler that was geared towards just those conservatives who were against Twitter’s rules of content and moderation. Parler does not moderate any of its content, allowing anything and everything to be said and shared on the site. In the minds of Trump’s staunchest supporters, this was the ideal free-speech zone, where the harm words can cause was simply no consideration at all. Trump’s faithful, many of whom already had Parler accounts, trooped off. If the liberals in charge of Twitter and Facebook would kick them out, Parler was there to welcome them.

The tentacles of Big Tech, however, could reach longer and deeper than they had imagined. Parler may have been a separate service that did not moderate its content, but it used Amazon Web Servers to host its content, and it was sold as an app on the Apple App Store and on Google Play. Both these factors made it subject to the rules of service applied by Apple, Amazon, Googleplay, etc. Now these other tech giants stepped in. If Parler would not moderate its content, they would refuse to host the site on their servers or allow the application to be sold on its stores. Ultimatums were handed down; they could not be met, and so the week after the Capitol insurrection Parler too went dark. The conservatives who had funded it vowed that the site would be back, but without web server hosting it appeared this would be a tall order.

The role of Big Tech in first pushing up and then ultimately (and belatedly) removing Trump is likely to be debated for decades to come. It is difficult not to wonder about how many people would still be alive if Twitter and Facebook had done what they did this January one year ago; they would have denied Trump a platform to spread lies about Covid-19 and the election. A study completed by TheWashington Post found that in the two weeks since Trump has been suspended from Twitter, misinformation on the issue of the election and the events following have been reduced by a whopping 72 per cent.

Donald Trump, who tweeted hundreds of times a day on some days and whose tweets are now a part of history, will never have access to a Twitter account again. His is a lifetime ban applied not to a particular account but to him as a person regardless of which account he uses. The story of Trump’s end is in this sense as much a tale of how giant tech companies now have the power to make or break governments, even in the most powerful country in the world.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.


Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2021



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