Even before President Donald Trump‘s appalling conduct last week, there was already a constituency growing for banning him from social media and anything else anyone could think of. But by challenging Congress‘ ritual acceptance of the Electoral College results with a rally where his false claims and incendiary rhetoric egged the crowd to march on the U.S. Capitol, where many morphed into a violent mob, Trump has turned himself into the sort of pariah few beyond his most faithful supporters will defend.
Yet the reaction to the Capitol riot has gone far beyond mere national outrage. The post-riot willingness of the Big Tech giants to collude in an effort to shut down the communicative ability of the president and his backers—an ostensible effort to defend democracy—has actually created a far greater threat to free speech and democratic discourse than anything Trump did in his four years in office. While many feared Trump’s authoritarian instincts, the response to the riot has enabled Facebook‘s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter‘s Jack Dorsey and Amazon‘s Jeff Bezos to become the arbiters of what may or may not be said in the nation’s virtual public square in a way that any would-be American dictator would envy.
Trump’s disastrous decision to try and pressure Georgia’s secretary of state to effectively falsify the presidential vote in that state (which played a key role in the loss of the two Senate run-off elections there) and his role in fomenting the Capitol riot were both indefensible—as are many of the tweets he’s sent out since losing the 2020 presidential election, in which he has relentlessly hyped unsubstantiated claims of massive fraud.
So when, after a growing chorus of demands to”stop enabling [Trump’s] monstrous behavior” from liberal celebrities like Michelle Obama, Twitter and then Facebook decided to ban or suspend his accounts, the president’s sundry opponents cheered. Twitter also began locking out other people—like Fox News commentator and radio host Dan Bongino—who used their accounts to retweet the president’s somewhat equivocal post-riot messages, which continued to claim that the election won by Biden was really a “landslide” for Trump that was stolen from him. Other figures closely associated with Trump, like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and discredited attorney Sidney Powell, were also kicked off the social media platform.
Yet the Big Tech crackdown didn’t stop there. Google Play and Apple kicked Parler, a social media company that bills itself as a free speech safe zone and a would-be competitor for Twitter, off its ubiquitous app stores because Parler had not shut down certain comments from its users. Things got worse for Parler when Amazon Web Services—which controls about half of all available public cloud infrastructure—announced that it would boot the site off its hosting service. In order to remain open, Parler had been told that it must start moderating the posts published on its site and “remove all objectionable material.” When it refused to do so, Amazon blacked out the site, which is currently down and may remain so indefinitely, as it tries to find a new provider unafraid of risking the displeasure of industry giants.
Thus, in a few days, not only has Trump lost access to the platform that served as his direct line to more than 80 million followers, Twitter, but his supporters are similarly being silenced by having their accounts locked and/or their preferred Twitter alternative de-platformed.
Those doing the silencing don’t think there is any irony in their justifying this sort of censorship in the name of democracy. As Mrs. Obama laid out in her manifesto, Trump supporters are not merely being shamed by linkage to the criminal actions of a mob, but are being treated as accessories to an actual “insurrection.”
As journalist Glenn Greenwald presciently pointed out, the sense of outrage on the part of almost all Americans about what happened at the Capitol is being used by social media companies and the liberal politicians cheering them on to justify the sort of overreaction that could be compared to the restrictions on civil liberties that were enacted by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As odious as the Capitol riot was and as irresponsible as Trump’s language and actions have been, his supporters are now being treated as if they are the moral equivalent of a 74-million-strong al-Qaeda cell.
The conspiracy theories being circulated about the election are appalling—as was the willingness of Trump and his most devoted followers to try to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power by seeking to prevent certification of the Electoral College results. But the response from Big Tech illustrates that fears about these companies using their unique power to shut down content they disapprove of is no longer one about a mere “slippery slope” to censorship. That censorship is now at our doorstep.
With the Big Tech giants joining together to censor Trump and those supporting him, we have arrived at a point where a handful of billionaires who control the modern information superhighway are not merely thinking about censorship—they are actively engaged in it. What’s more, they are doing it with the implicit support of the incoming Biden-Harris administration and its supporters.
In recent years, worries about the growing influence of fringe groups and conspiracy theorists have led many to believe that social media platforms must start to censor users, lest they become accomplices to hate-mongers.
At first, that took the form of efforts to force Facebook and Twitter to shut down neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, with people like actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen tearing into Facebook’s Zuckerberg for his refusal to more aggressively regulate content on his site. But now that the social media companies have complied with those demands, predictions that censorship wouldn’t stop with the Nazis are being vindicated.
As private companies, Twitter, Facebook, Google (which has sought to demonetize conservative sites like The Federalist) and Amazon can do what they want. They are not the government, which means they are within their rights in deciding to limit discourse on their sites.
It’s not a violation of anyone’s constitutional rights to be denied, say, the opportunity to have an op-ed published in The New York Times or The Washington Post. The same applies when a book publishing company like Simon & Schuster decides to rescind a decision to put out a book, as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) learned this past week when that firm chose not to be associated with someone who supported Trump’s effort to protest the Electoral College vote.
But the Big Tech companies are in a very different position. Amazon and Google possess a virtual monopoly over the Internet. With more than three billion global users, Facebook is the landlord for America’s national public square—and the same is true, to a lesser extent, for Twitter. Facebook and Twitter have achieved this kind of dominance while acting as traditional publishers but nonetheless possessing the kind of immunity from liability that any newspaper or magazine couldn’t dream of: Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act has exempted them from being held accountable for what goes up on their platforms. Treating them as internet bulletin boards, rather than publishers, has enabled them to dominate communications in a way no publication or broadcast outlet has ever done before. This despite the fact Facebook and Twitter have actively embraced the usual prerogative of publishers by censoring material they find objectionable.
Big Tech’s influence on the incoming Biden administration is such that it is unlikely their power will be diminished in any serious way. In this way, silencing Trump and his supporters not only fits with the political prejudices of the social media oligarchs that control the flow of information, but is also clearly good for business.
The bans on Trump and his supporters are being treated as no different from efforts to block hate groups. But the problem is that Big Tech’s principles are wildly inconsistent. Wild and unproven claims about election fraud are troubling, but are they really worse than the way Twitter allows China’s Communist government to spread lies and propaganda—or Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to use his account to issue death threats against dissidents and the state of Israel, while at the same time stopping the people living under that Islamist tyranny from freely expressing their own opinions? While Twitter has always defended giving foreign dictators the right to use Twitter as a matter of defending freedom of information and readers’ right to know important information, Dorsey isn’t prepared to extend that same courtesy to Trump. Nor is there any evidence that threats against Republican lawmakers are resulting in Twitter bans.
As we saw during the election campaign, when the social media companies stepped in to protect Joe Biden by using their power to silence a New York Post story about his son Hunter’s corrupt foreign business connections, the ability of these Silicon Valley oligarchs to impact discourse is neither disinterested nor benign. And whatever anyone thinks of Trump, or how much anyone would like him to go away and give the country some peace, the notion that Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Bezos should be allowed to silence him and any potential competitor that might allow him a platform is completely antithetical to any idea of a working democracy or a free market of ideas.
As much as a healthy distrust of government interference in private businesses is generally well founded, the power of these Big Tech companies to control public discourse is a clear and present danger—not just to those with whom their owners disagree, but to everyone who values basic free speech ideals.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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