Twitter has just crossed the Rubicon. A corporation has suspended the main means of communication of the head of state of the most powerful country in the world.
After insurrectionist protesters took over the Capitol in Washington, DC yesterday, Twitter suspended Trump’s accounts for 12 hours. According to Twitter, this was done for “repeated and severe violations” of the platform’s civic integrity policy on Trump’s part. One of the tweets in question was a minute-long video in which the President claimed there had been fraud in the November election and in which he addressed protestors, called for them to “respect law and order” and to “go home in peace”. According to The Guardian, that kind of language is “incitement of violence”. How you could understand the content of this video like that is beyond me.
Whatever you think about Trump’s rather spurious claims that “the election was stolen” or whether you think he was, somehow, responsible for the attack on the Capitol, you need to pause for a second and understand what has just happened here: A public company has suspended the main communication channel of the duly-elected head of state of the most powerful country in the world. Let that sink in for a moment. This is a power grab of stunning proportions. A power grab by corporate America for the nation’s hearts and minds.
From a political science and legal perspective it has to be clear to anyone with half a brain that this is a very dangerous thing that just happened. Twitter, the vanguard of the Silicon Valley tech companies, has just crossed the Rubicon. It is without question that companies have the right to govern their platforms, which in the case of tech companies like Twitter are their main product, as they please. But companies exist in a legal framework that is created by the legislature of the country and beholden to regulation by the executive. And in the US, the legislature has clearly decreed that these platforms shall only be free of the threat of legal action as long as they do not editorialise the content posted by their users. Trump’s opinion is that the election was rigged, which is something he is well within his rights to express. It really doesn’t matter if The New York Times has “debunked” this claim. It is still a valid opinion. It is not Twitter’s place to judge if this opinion is sensible (or even sane). That’s the job of the public. Or of the press, which can be sued if it is grossly negligent in its editorialising. Unlike Twitter, which editorialises wildly, makes rules that make no sense and are unfair and illogical. But Twitter can’t be sued for this.
Moreover, the President of the United States has significant policy power over many aspects of the country, its society and how business is conducted. He is not just another Twitter user to be arbitrarily censored. It is undisputable that the Office of the President can be considered more important than a public company operating out of the country he runs. In fact, he has the power to make policy that can effect this company and its business directly. Until very recently, he also controlled the party that made up the majority of the seats in the legislature. Which means Twitter did not only suspend the account of the man who runs the most powerful country in the world, but also the man who makes the rules the company has to operate by.
Imagine Boeing would have grounded Air Force One because it didn’t like the people President Obama was meeting on a state visit. This is the kind of delusions of grandeur we are talking about here. Whatever you think of Trump, this is a dangerous precedent. Sure, Twitter won’t do this to Biden because the company generally agrees with his ideas and worked hard to get him elected, but if you’re a Biden supporter, just imagine a Republican-run company doing something like this to your President. Do you see where the problem is here?
Twitter has to ask itself this: What if the violence yesterday would have gotten much worse? What if Trump, with his video message, would have actually been able to get through to “his supporters” and stop it? And what if Twitter forcing him to deleted that video would have escalated the violence instead of stopping it? I think the time has come to start making these companies responsible for their actions. They do not provide neutral platforms where all ideas can equally flourish – an absolutely ludicrous idea if I’ve ever heard one – but are in fact actively involved in shaping the discourse among voters and the public at large. More than that, in some instances they are clearly manipulating this discourse by publishing propaganda that helps causes they are sympathetic to while supressing propaganda (and facts) that hurt these causes.
Silicon Valley has, essentially, declared war on the democratic processes of the nation. It wants its ideas and prejudices to be in control of the public discourse. And if you think that that’s OK because some ideas are just inherently better than others and facts are facts and science says so, I urge you to take some classes in both political science and history. Or at least read some text books on public relations and propaganda. You will realise that there are a lot less actual facts out there in the world than people at your favourite newspaper or cable TV network would have you believe. Just because an idea is progressive, doesn’t mean its good. And just because a Democrat says he or she wants to make the world a better place does not mean what they are actually proposing will do that. This is why we need universal rules, a constitutional framework if you will, to govern both sides of the aisle at all times. Because politicians, and company executives, are all crooked to one degree or another. They are all out for themselves first. If you can’t see that, I don’t think I can help you here. I lost that kind of naiveté when I was about sixteen years old, I think.
It is absolutely unacceptable that corporate interests are in control of, and able to censor at will, vital communication channels that the functioning of our democracies depend on – and with it our personal freedoms and civil liberties. We need to push back on this. Hard. Not for Trump or the Republicans or those idiots in furs and ill-fitting tactical gear who defile the institutions of our state. But to protect our freedoms and our ability to have a functional and independent democratic state and actual rule of law. We need to bring these companies to heel before they take over everything in our lives. Science-fiction writers have forecast this exact dystopia for 50 years now. We can’t afford to have it come true. If I want a future where companies are more powerful than the government, I can play Cyberpunk 2077. I don’t need that in my actual future.
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Header image: Donald Trump is bad. But the reaction he brings out in his enemies is much worse for society in the long run.