After Twitter permanently suspended Donald Trump’s account, earlier this month, the reactions were quick, ubiquitous, and mostly predictable. Many of the takes seemed canned, the way an obituary of a terminally ill celebrity is often pre-written. On the Trump-apologist right, the suspension was denounced as Orwellian tyranny, deep-state collusion, or worse. (Glenn Beck, during a segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, compared the Trump ban and other Big Tech crackdowns to “the Germans with the Jews behind the wall. They would put them in the ghetto. Well, this is the digital ghetto.”) Among Trump’s opponents, reactions were more mixed. There was a good amount of gloating—the only thing easier than kicking a man when he’s down is dunking on an account after it’s locked—but the Schadenfreude was tempered with caution. Jameel Jaffer, the director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, neatly summarized the tension (in a tweet, naturally): “It’s coherent—and in my view absolutely appropriate—to believe both that (i) the social media companies were right to suspend Trump’s accounts last week; and (ii) the companies’ immense power over public discourse is a problem for democracy.” In another tweet, he added, “The First Amendment question is easy. All the other questions are hard.”
Let’s take the easy question first. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits a private company from enforcing its own policies; if anything, the First Amendment protects a company’s right to do so. Now the harder questions. Does censoring a head of state set a dangerous precedent? Yes, it does, but so does allowing a head of state to use a platform’s enormous power, over the course of several years, to dehumanize women, inflame racist paranoia, flirt with nuclear war, and incite armed sedition, often in flagrant violation of the company’s rules. Is it worrisome that Jack Dorsey, a weirdly laconic billionaire with a castaway beard who has never been elected to any public office, is able to make unilateral, unaccountable decisions that may help determine whether our country survives or self-immolates? Yes, it is. But, given that Dorsey and a handful of other techno-oligarchs have this ability, they might as well be pressured (or shamed, or regulated) into using it wisely.
The suppression of speech we despise can lead down a slippery slope toward the suppression of speech we cherish; indeed, it almost always does. We should worry about this, but we should also worry about another slippery slope: the one we are already on. Twitter and the other major social networks spent their first decade of existence branding themselves as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party,” using this as a catchall excuse to absolve themselves of any real responsibility for moderating their platforms. They seemed to assume, blithely and conveniently, that the marketplace of ideas would take care of itself. This isn’t what happened. Instead, with shocking speed, social media decimated professional media, abraded our civic life, coaxed us into unhealthy relationships with our phones and with one another, harvested and monetized our personal data, warped our brains and our politics, and made us brittle and twitchy and frail, all while a few entrepreneurs and investors continued to profit from our addiction and confusion. Social media was hardly the only malign force in the world, but it certainly didn’t seem to be helping. Just a few years into this unprecedented global experiment, several formerly stable liberal democracies found themselves on the precipice of authoritarianism. Britain left the European Union, Brazil and the Philippines came to be ruled by thugs who routinely threatened to kill their political opponents, and India, once a beacon of religious pluralism, descended into Islamophobic mob violence. It seemed as if there were no more ways for the nightmare to grow more dire, and yet it always did. Soon enough, millions of Americans were radicalized, lost in an epistemic fun house of pernicious drivel, and one day a few hundred of them formed a mob and assailed the Capitol, planting bombs and smearing shit through the halls, leaving at least six people dead. For years, social-media tycoons have been allowed to avoid accountability by relying on airy abstractions—we want to change the world; we believe in people; we support free speech. It’s long past time, at the very least, to weigh the benefits of these abstractions against a frank accounting of social media’s measurable, tangible harm. [Continue reading…]