Yes, Big Tech is Too Powerful AND De-Platforming Trump Was Still the Right Move
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By David Ruiz
For the past month, people of the world have woken up every day, slapped their fingers onto their smartphones to silence their morning alarms, unlocked their devices, and scrolled through their social media feeds. And what has been missing the entire time? A single word from former President Donald Trump.
While the system that produced Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms is far from perfect—and it represents earlier, unjust moments of inaction—a newsfeed with fewer lies and fewer conspiracies is a better, more wonderful thing.
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Yes, there is too much power in Silicon Valley. No, those companies do not have to feign powerlessness against abusers.
This mostly began last month.
One day after supporters of former President Donald Trump violently invaded the US Capital buildings—breaking windows, ransacking offices, and beating one police officer to death—the two largest social media platforms finally broke out the Ban Hammer. On January 7, Twitter and Facebook stopped former President Trump and his campaigns from posting publicly on their websites.
MAGA and police now clashing inside of Capitol.
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) January 6, 2021
In the coming days, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Stripe, Spotify, and several more companies implemented new restrictions on the President and on individual accounts that spread election misinformation and conspiracies.
Predictably, the President’s supporters cried “foul.” But similar agitation came from world powers, political commentators, and onlooking celebrities. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel called Trump’s removal from Twitter “problematic.” One French politician said he was “shocked” by the decision, while another warned that Big Tech was “one of the threats” to democracy. When Facebook first made its move against the President,model Emily Ratajowski said on Twitter: “This gives Facebook/tech/Zuck THE MOST POWER. If he can shut the president up/off he can shut any of us up/off.”
Here’s the thing: No one raising these issues is 100 percent wrong about the situation.
Is it “problematic” that a small handful of companies can choose who gets to speak to the broader public through their platforms and who does not? Yes, it actually is, particularly when those platforms have become the access point for so many communities to read the news, talk to friends, connect with loved ones, and organize for their own interests.
Is Big Tech “one of the threats” to democracy? Well, one of those Big Tech companies turned a blind eye to rampant disinformation spread on their platform during a campaign of genocide in Myanmar, which had only achieved some recent democratic progress and which now faces a military coup.
Further, it is frustrating that these companies’ restrictions appear to rely not only on their internal rules, but on what is politically expedient. Do we think for a second that these tech companies would have restricted Donald Trump if he, or his party, had secured any branch of the Federal government? Doubtful.
And finally, even when these companies do rely only on their internal rules to remove a user, that process can appear opaque, with users sometimes unable to appeal the decision.
So, the odds look pretty bad. It is wrong that multibillion-dollar corporations can unilaterally silence users. It is dangerous that these companies have such an outsized influence on what a country sees, what it gets angriest about, and even how it votes.
But importantly, and perhaps most importantly, we have to ask: Was the election, as the former President asserted again and again, actually stolen?
No. No it was not.
Did certain states collude to rob the President of his victory and yet grant victories to members of his own party in down-ballot races? Also no.
Did a voting machine company develop technology to rig a past Venezuelan election and then use that technology again to switch votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden? Abso-fucking-lutely not.
And yet, these are precisely the same lies that flooded Twitter and Facebook before the companies took action against Donald Trump and multiple conspiracy-supporting accounts last month.
Guess what? Those restrictions worked. Following the company’s decisions, one study revealed a 73 percent decrease in election-related misinformation shared online.
Does this mean that we should celebrate the companies themselves and the systems they have in place to make these decisions? No! Twitter and Facebook routinely fail to limit targeted abuse against some members, and their enforcement actions sometimes feel vague and inconsistent.
However, people are allowed to be excited about a known liar and instigator having his megaphone removed. This is, overall, a lesson in lessening the provocateur.
The provocateur needs attention more than anything else. Attention is his oxygen. The provocateur may not even believe what he says—he may instead say whatever gets him the most attention. The most views, the most clicks, the most ad revenue. The most podcast guest spots, the most seats in a stadium, the most likely chance to be seen as legitimate.
Was Donald Trump just a provocateur? No. But did his need for provocation make his lies—said constantly, covered by the media endlessly, and repeated mindlessly—even more dangerous? Yes.
For four years now, the assumed answer to misinformation was the truth. Reporters investigated Trump’s financial house of cards. Survivors told their stories of alleged sexual abuse by the President. A whistleblower warned the nation of an underhanded plot to compel the president of Ukraine into announcing a sham investigation into then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Sadly, none of it worked. Not really. The lies still sprang forth, and they still swirled about online, growing like a wildfire. Truth did not overcome fiction, water did not extinguish the fire.
But last month, a handful of companies remembered that there are two ways to put out a fire. Sometimes you just have to starve it of oxygen.