On January 6, 2021, President Trump and his far-right allies in the Republican Party tried to prevent the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s electoral college votes. It culminated in thousands of demonstrators violently forcing their way into the nation’s Capitol to disrupt the certification process. The protests that led to the disruption had been promoted by Trump and his allies for weeks, and Trump and others egged them on in the hours before the incident. The Capitol riot, however, was so shocking a break from democratic process that it instantly discredited Trump and his enablers in his Party.

That was cause for applause. It quickly settled the debate and clarified the true implications of unfounded challenges to the election result. Unfortunately, fallout from the incident is not being confined to prosecuting the criminal acts, nor even to impeaching the President in his final days. The Trump insurrection is now being used to justify a major ramping up of politically motivated suppression of speech online. The unsuccessful putsch is being followed by a purge.

In a matter of hours, Facebook/Instagram and Twitter deplatformed a sitting President, someone with 80+ million followers who got 70+ million votes from the public. They were followed by Spotify, Shopify, Reddit, Apple and Google/YouTube, Tiktok, Pinterest and Snapchat. Most eye-catching of all, Google removed the rightwing Twitter alternative, known as Parler, from its app store and Apple threatened it with expulsion from its app store unless they moderated their content. Thus, it was not just purging Trump, but tech giants almost simultaneously using their bottleneck duopoly over app stores and mobile phone operating systems to extend control over content into platforms they do not run.

There are strong justifications for recriminations against Trump and his followers. As California congressman Jared Huffman tweeted: “One of the things about inciting a failed violent insurrection is that civil society rescinds your social license. You become toxic because you are. It’s not “cancel culture,” it’s people of conscience tuning you out, as they should.” It is also true that the platforms are all private actors, who are therefore not engaged in censorship per se.

But these actions are also testing the boundaries of the private actor/state actor divide, and we need to be fully aware of their long term implications. Just as the 9/11 terrorist attack was used to justify almost indiscriminate surveillance and other curbs on civil liberties, so the Trump Capitol riots are being used by some to assault the very notion of free political debate and open social media.

This will be an ongoing policy discussion, but three points relevant to internet governance need to be made immediately:

1. Stop blaming “social media”

Blaming social media per se [1] for the existence of right wing groups and hate speech does not make much sense and is unsupported by scientific studies. To say, “social media is used by fascists” overlooks the fact that it is also used by Bernie Bros, AOC, the Yang gang, SJWs, communists, the woke, moderates, Democrats, libertarians and the apolitical. Countless voices from countless perspectives are there. If someone blames social media generically as the causal agent for only one political movement, they are not explaining anything about that movement’s rise, they are really just targeting that group for organized suppression by platforms and media.

2. Polarization

It is true that new forms of public communication are changing politics. But political polarization is a more accurate and fair characterization of our predicament. Social science research shows that polarization is a process that has been going on in the U.S. for 40 years (in the linked article, see the graphs on the “Rise of Out-Party Hate”). It started in the 1980s, and talk radio and TV broadcasters have played as big a role in it as social media. It is rooted institutionally in several structural and institutional factors, most notably the two-party system and the way Americans sort themselves into those parties. Understanding the sources and dangers of polarization is important, because both sides contribute to it, and partisan political uses of content moderation are more likely to exacerbate than to prevent polarization.

3. State actors and private actors

The de-platforming of the President has revived the debate over the relationship between private economic power and public media. The exploitation of the app store bottleneck to make the two platforms an arbiter of acceptable political viewpoints has raised the stakes. We keep repeating the same exchange: One side: isn’t it scary how a few big platforms can effectively silence someone? The other side: it’s not censorship, they are private actors and they have both a contractual right to enforce adherence to their terms of service, and a social responsibility to maintain a clean environment.

Both sides are right! We need to move beyond that debate in a way that captures the insights of both.

 

Footnote:

[1] The blame social media attitude was best expressed by CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan as he wandered among the dispersing MAGA crowd on the eve of the riots. He informed us that “social media” was the real cause of this incident because they have “enabled conspiracy theories and hate for years.” Later, without a hint of self-consciousness, he used his social media account to reiterate the point, accusing platform executives of “making billions of dollars” on this enabling. His jab at advertising dollars raised another unnoticed irony, as CNN tweeted that January 6 turned out to be its “most watched in history, with 5.221 million tuning in on television during the Capitol Insurrection” and thus an advertising bonanza. The newly formed Alphabet Workers Union was quick to jump on the bandwagon, issuing a news release saying “Social media has emboldened the fascist movement growing in the United States and we are particularly cognizant that YouTube, an Alphabet product, has played a key role in this growing threat,” thus openly reinforcing the perception that political bias among platform employees plays a role in driving content decisions.

3 thoughts on “The Purge: Online Speech in the Aftermath of the Trump riots

  1. The current regulatory framework in the US does not seem to be fit for purpose, leaving too much to the whim private sector companies that, in turn, face criticism whatever they do. Should the US consider following the lead of the US and imposing a duty of care on social media platforms so that they are responsible for any harm caused by their inaction?

  2. Thanks, Milton, for pointing to “three points relevant to internet governance [that] need to be made immediately”. I think these are widely agreed. But now: what are the next steps?

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