For years, major tech platforms have pushed back against calls to moderate or block content related to concepts such as free speech, net neutrality and an open web. Donald Trump pushed them to their absolute limit, eventually leading to Facebook and Twitter blocking the US President’s accounts — his main channels of communication with the outside world — after a hoard of extremist pro-Trump white supremacists and conspiracy theorists stormed the Capitol building attempting to overturn last year’s election. Regardless of whether the decisions made by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerbeg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey were right or wrong, the Trump ban lays bare the absolute fallacy behind arguments used by the major platforms in the past, revealing both their incapacity to moderate their social networks and their prioritising of business interests ahead of the integrity of the digital information ecosystem.
Since being “deplatformed,” it feels as if President Trump has gone silent. He released a few messages in traditional fashion, either through statements issued by his aides or pre-recorded videos in which he read speeches condemning violence that seemed more like a legal disclaimer than a heartfelt petition to his followers to de-escalate the conflict at hand. At no point did he admit any responsibility for the violent riots that resulted in the deaths of at least five people, including one rioter inside the walls of Congress and a police officer that perished from injuries sustained trying to defend the Capitol.
According to news reports, the decision to block Trump’s accounts from Facebook and Twitter were taken by the companies’ founders, Zuckerberg (from his vacation home in Hawaii) and Dorsey (from the French Polynesia) respectively. Both of them held high-level meetings with their top executives and independently arrived at the decision that Trump’s posts incited physical violence. Both posted on their respective platforms noting this time around Trump’s use of their services had violated terms and conditions, leading to suspension. Yet, Trump has been fanning the flames of insurrection pretty much since he took office, spreading misinformation while hitting at the institutions of democracy whenever they didn’t go his way. Weeks before the election he began to call on his supporters to reject results if he didn’t win re-election, a message he doubled down on since losing the electoral bout to Joe Biden. Trump’s social media posts catalysed an extreme-right that merged with conspiracy theorists QAnon, which took to Twitter and Facebook but also Reddit, 4Chan, Parler and other platforms to rally behind the banners of hate and racism, calling on the use of weapons to take back the Republic. Why did they take so long to act, some asked.
Something’s off about their approach to Trump. Facebook and Twitter, along with WhatsApp, YouTube and a host of other platforms, have been used to incite violence across the world for at least a decade, if not more. In places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, activists have accused the company of inaction in the face of racial violence, even genocide. While in places like Venezuela or Cuba, dictatorial regimes and their leaders use the platforms openly, as do their political opponents, some of whom are politically persecuted and considered enemies of the state. In an investigation in Perfil and the Buenos Aires Times, published last week, journalist Julio López demonstrated how difficult it was to get Facebook and YouTube to block accounts and posts by neo-Nazi groups in Argentina, despite ample evidence of their affiliation. The Arab Spring, back in 2010, saw the West praise the platforms as harbingers of good, helping to topple oppressive dictators and bring democracy to the Middle East.
The first contradiction the barons of Silicon Valley crash with is epistemological. Their definition of the internet as “open” is tied to a reality that ceased to exist once the major companies became an oligopoly, with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple dominating almost the totality of the web. The original missions of these companies were noble, but once it became about profit, the incentive system decoupled from the need to keep the Internet open and free. And users became the product. Thus, keeping users engaged to the point where they couldn’t live without the platforms surfaced as the ultimate outcome.
The second inconsistency has to do with net neutrality and an open web. While the major platforms envision themselves as conduits of information, meaning they are mere channels for people or users to connect with each other, they have been engaged in algorithmic manipulation of the ecosystem seeking self-serving optimisation for a while now. Whether or not their original intention was based on improving user experience, the use of algorithms and AB testing has allowed them to perfect their capacity to control the digital ecosystem without users fully realising what’s going on, pushing their own products at the expense of competition and innovation.
The final issue has to do with freedom of speech. The idea of a free and neutral Internet meant everyone could have a voice, allowing anyone to reach a massive audience through their distribution channel. This disrupted traditional communications systems in a good way, breaking the grip held by mainstream media and economic interests, but it also unleashed an era of massive misinformation and deceit that has gone unchecked. Social media companies have claimed they aren’t comparable to news editors, that they shouldn’t determine what people see on their platforms, but they always have. Trump’s face-off with Silicon Valley over Section 230 – which protected them from facing the same legal responsibilities as publishers – was definitely on point as a debate we should be having right now.
Taken together, these concepts suggest that the platforms tolerated Trump’s behaviour because it was beneficial to them. The US president was one of the major personalities on Twitter and Facebook, generating hundreds of millions, if not billions, of interactions that went straight into the platforms’ bottom line. They were at the center of the public debate, used by Trump to set the agenda and circumvent traditional news outlets, and his own aides. And he was taken down because he hit too close to home, literally, being in the United States, one of their major markets. In other regions, it can take months and maybe even become impossible to get content flagged or taken down given the lack of staff or political motivation to do so. In part, this is a consequence of the exponential growth of the Internet and these companies, to the point where they are becoming ungovernable. I’m not even sure taking his accounts down was the right decision.
I take a point from Dorsey’s response, so let’s leave the final word to him: “A ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation […]. Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power of an individual or corporation has over part of the global public conversation.”