I don’t like Donald Trump — I never have and I never will. Anyone who has followed me on social media or on this blog will know that. I’ve never tried to hide my feelings about the outgoing President, nor would I ever want to. 2021 marks my fifth year writing on this site and the one common thread throughout all those years has been, perhaps regrettably, Donald Trump. Every year since he became President, I have been penning articles condemning his actions — from his role in the ‘Unite the Right’ Charlottesville rally in 2017, to the way he has fuelled the rise of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Moreover, my anger hasn’t just been reserved for this President, but also for all his enablers; for the journalists who took his bait, for the ‘respectable’ political figures who aligned themselves with him and, for the Senators and Representatives who opposed the President in private, but supported him in public.
Like many of Trump’s staunchest critics, my initial reaction to the President being banned off Twitter (and also a host of other social networks) was to find the whole thing rather funny: the man who had used Twitter to blurt out every random thought and grievance he had was now effectively silenced from the online sphere. I imagined the furious rage he must have gotten into upon attempting to log onto Twitter only to find himself permanently suspended; I struggled then, as I struggle now, not to take a little bit of schadenfreude in Trump’s suspension. As I watched the ensuing conservative freakout online, I thought smugly to myself “I thought you guys liked when the free market decided”.
The suspension of various accounts on Twitter — many conservative-leaning — including Trump had never before, in my eyes, raised a serious threat to free speech and expression. As far as I was concerned, sites like Twitter and Facebook were private companies and therefore were free to allow, and disallow, anyone they wanted from their sites. If these people who’d been banned were so concerned about being silenced they could join their own social media sites, like ‘Parler’, which didn’t seek to censor users; no matter how radical their rhetoric.
We are living in an oligopoly; where a few large sites have almost complete control over our freedom of speech online. That’s not a situation anyone should feel comfortable with
Then Parler was taken off the Apple App Store and was eventually shut down entirely by Amazon. Suddenly, it hit home that a few select companies could effectively entirely shut down anyone’s online presence and online communications if they wanted to. I didn’t mourn the loss of the President’s social media presence — nor that of Parler’s many users — but I’d be lying if I said that the crackdown on what was considered undesirable speech didn’t make me at least a little uncomfortable. For so long, I’d dismissed fears about companies like Twitter banning accounts with the retort that those who’d been banned could simply start their own site. But this argument had been brought to it’s knees by recent events; no longer could I pretend that the online world was a perfect free market where every site could allow/ban anyone they wanted and, anyone who was unhappy with that could go start their own site and run it in peace. Instead, we are living in an oligopoly; where a few large sites have almost complete control over our freedom of speech online. That’s not a situation anyone should feel comfortable with.
In the days following Trump’s ban off multiple social media sites, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the recently-poisoned Putin critic Alexei Navalny went on to criticise the bans. I was taken aback by how many liberal voices were so quick to dismiss their opinions. Granted, no politician — Navalny, Merkel, or otherwise — should be held to be some God-like figure above any and all criticism, but still, the out-of-hand rejection of both of their opinions seemed foolish and almost disrespectful. Angela Merkel is the head of a country who less than a century earlier found itself in the grips of perhaps the most evil, most powerful totalitarian Government in human history. Alexei Navalny, meanwhile, nearly died just months ago when he was poisoned after standing up to one of today’s most evil, most powerful totalitarian’s — Vladmir Putin. I can hardly think of two people who’s opinions I’d trust on the topic of free expression more than these two.
I struggled not to take a little bit of schadenfreude in Trump’s suspension. As I watched the ensuing conservative freakout online, I thought smugly to myself “I thought you guys liked when the free market decided”
Perhaps the reason so many liberals aren’t concerned about the Trump Twitter ban (and subsequent events) is that they think they will never be on the receiving end of these bans and because they think these social media companies are fair actors — dutifully and reliably enforcing the rules. Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions stand up to scrutiny. If incitement of violence and denial of election results are reason enough for sites like Twitter to ban Trump, what’s to stop them banning Maxine Waters for encouraging people to make sure Trump Cabinet members are shown they’re “not welcome anymore, anywhere”, or banning Nancy Pelosi for calling the 2016 election result “hijacked”, or even banning Bernie Sanders for calling the Democratic Primaries “rigged”. Of course, in reality, these statements aren’t equivalent to Trump’s dangerous rhetoric since losing in November, nor are they good reason for any of the above people to be banned from social media, but they demonstrate how easy it is for social media companies to find ‘evidence’ to support arbitrarily banning pretty much anyone they want from their sites.
Ultimately, this story isn’t really about Trump — you don’t need to feel bad about Trump being banned from Twitter and honestly, I wouldn’t expect you to. In fact, people like Trump — who have large pre-existing platforms and, a myriad of ways to get public attention outside of social media (and still have a large number of advocates on social media) — have the least to worry about. Instead of being about Trump, what this story is really about is the immense, disproportionate power a few select companies have over our online speech. The internet is the public square of the modern age and, the idea that a few sites can arbitrarily decide to stifle your online speech should be concerning to everyone. While I certainly know how tempting it is to take delight in Trump’s ban from social media, we shouldn’t pretend that sites like Twitter are acting in good faith, nor should we act like the disproportionate amount of power they wield is tolerable.