Trump's gone quiet, Parler nuked, Twitter protest never happened: There's an eerie calm – but at what cost?

Tech giants leap between positions, leave policy makers uncomfortable


Comment There was supposed to be a protest at Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco on Monday organized by supporters of President Trump furious at the web giant's decision to permanently ban his personal account. It never happened.

Part of the reason why is because the protest had been organized over the app Parler, and Parler went offline on Sunday after Amazon followed through on a threat to remove its hosting services. It killed the service, and any organizational efforts, with a click.

The decision by Amazon followed on the heels of Apple and Google removing Parler from their respective app stores, with all three tech mega-corps citing a lack of content controls on Parler amid numerous posts threatening violence. Within 24 hours of the warning, the app was pulled; a startlingly fast response.

Meanwhile, the president himself has been uncharacteristically quiet after being banned by both Twitter and Facebook, with brief efforts to bypass the ban resulting in the suspension of proxy accounts. European leaders called Trump's exile from social networks "problematic."

Despite literally having a TV studio and permanent contingent of national news reporters in his house, the removal of the president’s social media accounts had led to the bizarre suggestion that he has been silenced and is having trouble getting attention. (In truth, Trump is not willing to accept accountability as the price for having a global megaphone.)

Well, it worked

Deplatforming is highly effective. And, given the unbelievable events last week that started when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building and led on Monday to Democratic Party politicians introducing an article of impeachment against him, a period of calm before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden can only be a good thing.

But in the Land of the FreeTM, where freedom of speech has been used for decades to defend even the most offensive and provably false assertions, the dropping of a social media guillotine is as shocking as the threats by supporters of the president to hang his own vice-president for not throwing out the results of the November election.

Those same companies that have spent a decade fighting any effort to limit their users' content, and have argued vociferously in favor of the First Amendment, not only killed off one of their most high-profile user's account but took down an entire competing online platform within a day. It may take Parler weeks to get up and running again, if at all at this rate.

This leap between diametrically opposed positions in just a few short days has sounded its own warning alarm. It has exposed the extraordinary power that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon possess, and the fact that that power lies in the hands of a very small number of execs guided by no more than their current state of mind.

When faced with the fact, many months ago, that Donald Trump consistently and knowingly broke their terms and conditions, Twitter and Facebook did an extraordinary thing and created a special exemption just for him, arguing that his musings were of such public interest and value that the rules didn't apply.

Tipping point

When the president continued to abuse that privilege, posting false information and inciting his followers, the social media giants started adding warnings to his posts – much to the president's fury – but kept the posts up.

When armed insurrectionists broke into the Capitol, threatening the lives of the country's representatives, and the president not only failed to condemn them but said in a video that he "loved" them, the line was crossed and then the account was cut.

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It's possible to view this incremental approach as the companies doing their best to stick to their free speech beliefs. But the truth is that political considerations played just as large a part of the decision and have since become the overriding consideration.

Facebook and Twitter may have removed Trump's posts following the storming of the Capitol and then suspended/shut down his accounts in the aftermath citing "the risk of further incitement of violence," but it was not a coincidence that on the same day elections in Georgia handed the Democrats control of the Senate.

That put the politicians who have been extremely critical of the social media giants in the past in the position of being able to hold them to account as the chairs of Congressional committees. With multiple antitrust actions against them, the next few years will be critical.

This political calculation probably extended to the decision to shut down Parler. Even though Parler argues that it is non-partisan, the app is dominated by right-wing and often far-right users.

The tech giants cited the lack of controls and threats of violence but conservative commentators are not wrong when they point out that this kind of content is all over the internet. The removal of Parler is focused, punitive, and a tad hypocritical.

Guiderails

The tech giants have pointed to their policies each time they adopt a radically different approach to their previous one. But it is impossible not to see in the actions of the past few days that beneath the thin justifications are entirely subjective decisions that don't follow a clear process, have next to no transparency, ignore previous precedents, and put political and financial considerations above all else.

The corporations can't even point to the US government or law enforcement urging them to suspend accounts or cut off services for fear of violence. Given their enormous power, the tech giants are, essentially, lawless states run by benevolent dictators.

Not that the companies are to "blame" for their actions: they are acting in their own self-interest and each decision has no doubt been made after careful consideration of all the bad options in front of them.

But there is a reason that America is "a nation of laws and not of men," as the nation's second president, John Adams, put it. It's because laws put things on a predictable path. They not only allow everyone to predict in what direction different things will go but provide effective pushback on actions that appear unfair. They also give guidance to the organizations that are governed by those laws; guidance that is clearly badly needed.

The political earthquakes of the past week have put yet more cracks in the foundation of the United States of America but in some respects have also shown what actions need to be taken to shore the country up.

And one of them is new laws. New rules and regulations that govern online platforms are needed to provide stability, predictability and safety to the billions of people that use this new, dominant medium. ®

PS: The FBI has warned armed protests are being planned at all 50 US state capitols from January 16 onward, and at the US Capitol from January 17.


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