It took a number of years, but Twitter finally dumped Donald Trump from its platform. So too for Facebook. Too much hate. Too much violence. The insurrection at the Capitol was the final straw.
There have been many commentators saying that this is a problem. My opinion, dumping Trump and any others that spew hatred and foment violence is most assuredly not a problem.
First, we will dispense with the First Amendment argument. There is none. These are private businesses and the First Amendment restricts what the government can do. The principles involved for me dumping a comment or commenter are no different than Big Tech. Big Tech and Small Tech have the same fundamental issue, albeit at different scale.
If you spew hate, or spam, or simply write crap I don’t like, then poof, you’re gone. My blog, my rules. If you don’t like it don’t come here. Same with Big Tech.
This deplatforming of a President, however, struck a nerve with folks, for no reason other than he is a President, at least for a few more days.
Over at Bloomberg, Joe Nocera claims that this is as problem, in that a few people in charge of Big Tech have too much power:
Do you really want Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai deciding which speech is acceptable and which is not on their platforms — platforms that are now indistinguishable from the public space. In addition to the problem of having so much power concentrated in so few hands, they are simply not very good at it. Their rules are vague, change constantly and are ignored often if the user is prominent enough.
He comes around to a solution — destroying Section 230 protections:
I have come around to an idea that the right has been clamoring for — and which Trump tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to approve just weeks ago. Eliminate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That is the provision that shields social media companies from legal liability for the content they publish — or, for that matter, block.
He then admits that this would merely result in the problematic posters such as Trump being neutered anyway. After all, without 230 protections, the platform could conceivably be liable for the misconduct of posters. Nocera just thinks the neutering is a good thing:
In fact, once the social media companies have to assume legal liability — not just for libel, but for inciting violence and so on — they will quickly change their algorithms to block anything remotely problematic. People would still be able to discuss politics, but they wouldn’t be able to hurl anti-Semitic slurs. Presidents and other officials could announce policies, but they wouldn’t be able to spin wild conspiracies.
This is a terrible idea for reasons that I discussed last month — Section 230 is the lifeblood of interactive communications. Without 230, you would never read a negative review of any restaurant, hotel or widget. Negative reviews would be met with threats of litigation and the platform is not in a position to determine the truth/falsity of the review. And with politics, there are a bazillion shades of gray all wrapped up in contextual statements.
Twitter and Facebook are hardly the only platforms Trump has to speak on. He has the presidential podium, after all, and can speak freely from it.
And even when he is gone from office — and he will be gone — Trump could call up any journalists in the world and have conversations with them. Who would say no? Whether you love him or despise him you’d certainly like to get answers to questions. Recorded, of course.
And those remarks would get rebroadcast by others. On Twitter. On Facebook. And in a million newspapers, magazines, news shows, blogs, bulletin boards, etc. And it would happen almost instantaneously.
The only difference is that Twitter/Facebook would not be primary sources, but secondary.
Prof. Eugene Volokh, raises concerns in a New York Times op-ed. He writes that while there are plenty of places to speak, Twitter and Facebook are matchless:
there are hundreds of newspapers throughout the nation and several major TV networks. Facebook and Twitter have no major rivals in their media niches. The public relies on them as matchless mechanisms for unfiltered communication, including politicians’ communications with their constituents.
But this likewise misses that social media is, in very large part, about rebroadcasting the thoughts and opinions of others. If Trump (or any other dumped commenter) says anything worth repeating, it will be repeated on those platforms. By someone. Whether the ideas are rebroadcast widely would be determined merely by their level of interest. The same as me. And you.
A final thought: No one claims it is easy to moderate these platforms, or any forum with a lot of discussion.
It’s hard to do and virtually impossible to come up with any kind of objective criteria. The words themselves often obscure the context, as we will see in the upcoming impeachment debate over Trump directing people to march on the Capitol.
Want to know why it’s hard? Consider this easy example. In one context, Trump says “March on the Capitol!” to an angry group of armed insurrectionists. In another, Mahatma Gandhi says “March to the salt flats to make salt.” One is an implicit call for violence, implicit because Trump has a long history of advocating violence. The other comes from someone with a long history of advocating peace.
Context matters. And it defies artificial intelligence decisions that merely look at the words. Let Big Tech (and Small Tech) do as they please with respect to dumping/keeping posters. Keep government out of it.
(Full disclosure: I own stock in Twitter, having bought it after Trump was sworn in, figuring that four years of free advertising couldn’t hurt.)