Today Donald John Trump, the 45th and current President of the United States, was banned from Twitter on the grounds that the account presented a “risk of further incitement of violence.”
I offer no opinion as to POTUS’ speech. Calls to or encouragement of violence on Twitter are nothing new. Leaders and nations (and leaders of nations) call for violence on Twitter all the time, whether in the context of Ayatollah Khameni referring to the State of Israel as a “cancerous tumor…. that has to be… eradicated” or the Chinese government engaging in genocide denialism.
Closer to home, ordinary people everywhere across the political spectrum, when given a keyboard and an Internet connection, routinely prove capable of being utterly horrible.
This summer, when in fact people were burning rather a lot of things down, rather a lot of comments on Twitter called for various individuals to “burn” [various things, usually “it”] “down.” Indeed Twitter continues to platform an author of a book titled “In Defense of Rioting,” published during the peak of the 2020 summer riots which killed 25, shut down dozens of American cities and incurred billions of dollars in damage.
On the right people were no better, advocating the use of extreme force in extreme language. See e.g. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz calling for American citizens to be “[hunted down] like we do those in the Middle East”:
Mind you, much of what the United States does in the Middle East these days is extrajudicial murder, particularly when we do it either directly with a drone strike, but also through our provision of precision-guided weaponry to local client states. Given the example our government sets in dispatching its enemies it is perhaps not so unsurprising that after even the most cursory search one can find a great many calls on ye internet for extrajudicial murder to be committed against our neighbors right here at home.
This stuff isn’t on some fringe platform like 4Chan, it’s on Twitter. And it’s not hard to find. Millions of Americans are cooped up in their houses calling for, or reading other people’s calls for, millions of other Americans to be dragged out and shot in broad daylight.
This is unhealthy. Hearing these things on television, in the classroom or the workplace would be unthinkable. Reading them online is routine. That these views are widely held is borne out by research: polling shows that the political right and left are both increasingly tolerant of the use of unlawful force to accomplish their political objectives.
Whatever this is, it pre-dates COVID-19; The Proud Boys (right wing) and Antifa (left wing) street gangs were mixing it up in American cities like Portland all year round, and the latest incident in D.C. is really a larger and more dramatic instance of street violence which has happened in D.C. for the past few weeks and the U.S. over the past several years.
As a libertarian, this troubles me. Last time I looked, we don’t execute people for rioting. (In many states the government doesn’t deliberately execute anyone at all, for any reason.) Kent State is rightly remembered as an atrocity because it was an atrocity, much like the Boston Massacre and Tiananmen Square were atrocities. If a line of policemen gunned down dozens of BLM supporters in Lafayette Square when the White House was first beseiged in June, that would have been an atrocity. So too would it have been if the Capitol Police gunned down the yahoos who stormed the Capitol building this week.
It is a sad commentary on our current state of affairs that we cannot agree that atrocities are bad in every case, even where philosophical opponents are concerned. It is a testament to the strength of our system, not a sign of weakness, that police allow public places to sometimes be overrun and that we then allow our constitutional guarantees of due process and a fair hearing to mete out justice in the aftermath. This indeed is happening now – as of this writing, 54 individuals have been arrested and if I had to guess hundreds more will be before the US Attorney is done handing out indictments.
Running a social media company is not easy. It is hard for the human mind to appreciate the difficulty for any organization to keep on top of a flow of speech being pumped out to the tune of five to ten thousand posts per second, as is the case on Twitter. Twitter’s moderation therefore kicks in after the fact: posts go up, and are later reviewed, and if found wanting, they come down. American law works much the same way; we do not impose so-called prior restraints on speech by subjecting speech to pre-approval or licensing, but rather we permit the speaker to make the decision as to what he or she wishes to say, subject to the condition that if the speech falls within one of a definite set of criminal or tortious categories, such as threatening, libel, conspiracy, or direct incitement, a penalty might be imposed.
The vast majority of data produced, and therefore speech produced, in the present day is online. In the context of COVID-19 virtually all speech of political importance is made online. The First Amendment protects that speech from interference from the state. It does not protect that speech from interference from private parties, including but not limited to the platforms who host it.
Most social media companies claim to be viewpoint-neutral and have policies which are ostensibly viewpoint neutral in order to attract the widest possible audiences to their platform. Long has it been alleged by American conservatives that these platforms are biased against them.
Long has it been alleged by American liberals that the conservatives’ allegations are untrue. We can confidently say that the banning of President Trump by most of the major players, paired with the continued tolerance of literal genocidaires from abroad, shows the conservative complaint is correct. Moderation policies are a smokescreen for political reality, which is that social media platforms were content to be more or less neutral when they were racking up KPIs in the run up to an IPO, but in the wake of mainstream commercial success they have become more (commercially) conservative to reflect the politics of their owner-operators, regulators, and advertisers. They cannot say this out loud without alienating vast swathes of their users, so they let the implementation of their policies say it for them tacitly.
In the United States, there is no legal problem here. Advocacy of the use of force or support for the use of force, without more, is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (see: Brandenburg v. Ohio); the type of speech we criminalize is specific, such as that which furthers an attempt, agrees a conspiracy, or is directed towards the production of imminent lawless action.
I do not think it is appropriate to describe what is happening to President Trump as de-platforming. He is a platform unto himself. Nor do I think that de-platforming people who are out of step with a platform’s own political consensus is a bad thing. For sure, a deplatforming has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a shield against state action.
Wherever the President might go, he will bring millions of users with him. This might be a good thing. Many of my closer friends, personal and on the Internet, are growing increasingly concerned that America is in an escalatory spiral of political violence. For this social media is being blamed.
If indeed this is true, the highest priority for our government and our corporations should not be scoring partisan political points or controlling the battlespace (which they are doing). It should be de-escalation (which they are not doing).
Twitter is not a neighborhood, its terms of service are not laws, its content moderators are not policemen, and its CEO is not a head of state. Yet it is the place many of us gather, a town square without grass, a coffee shop without tables, a park without benches, where we have conversations in public where not just anyone nearby, but anyone in the world can inadvertently stumble upon our words and object.
The result is that everyone is constantly strung out and fighting, surrounded by enemies real or imagined. Jack and Zuck built platforms that connected the world, but at the same time forced everyone to deal with people whose opinions they loathe and on terms they resent. Current proposed reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act would ossify this miserable state of affairs in law.
Our constitutional system was not designed to accommodate millions of belligerents constantly screaming at each other at the speed of light, as social media does now. Hoping to completely silence our philosophical opponents’ viewpoints is a fool’s errand; apart from being morally wrong and illegal, it is technically impossible, as the ability to spin up a server is the ability to host an online forum. Perhaps it is no bad thing if we embark on experiments to structure the Internet in such a way that unlike-minded people are kept further apart.