There is no rational argument that Twitter, a private corporation, was not entirely within its legal rights to throw Trump off its site, even if a handful of unduly passionate lawyers and scarily moronic congress folk cry First Amendment. No, it doesn’t matter that it’s a publicly traded corporation. No, it doesn’t matter that some call it the virtual town square. No, it doesn’t matter that you’ve been reliably informed that Section 230 protections require it to not discriminate politically. This isn’t a discussion.
But as Eugene Volokh points out in his New York Times op-ed, that’s not where the fair concerns end.
What should we think about the power of such private corporations — and of the companies’ immensely wealthy owners — over American political speech?
That’s a hard question to answer. On the one hand, deplatforming a user like Mr. Trump is perfectly legal, and the perils of corporate power are often exaggerated.
On the other hand, these companies are exercising a sweeping ability to silence all of a politician’s speech, not just the dangerous parts. This would be condemned as prior restraint — that is, an action forbidding a wide range of future speech, rather than punishing a specific past statement — if done by the government. Furthermore, these companies are doing this in an environment of limited competition and with little transparency, procedural protection or democratic accountability.
There is free speech, the legal doctrine. There is free speech, the principle. Neither is held in particularly high esteem these days by a great number of people. And a great number of people will lose no sleep over Trump being denied his direct source to his minions to spew whatever pops into his head in the middle of the night as he stews about how his quest to be accepted as a rich guy by the old guard of Palm Beach has been thwarted by people who don’t admire his taste in classy gold-plated toilets.
But, and this is a big but, he is the President of the United States, whether he deserves to be or not.
Yet Citizens United was just about whether corporations could spend money to convey their views. Now we have a few huge corporations actually blocking someone’s ability to convey his views. Plus, such blocking affects not just the speaker; it also affects the millions of people who use Facebook and Twitter to hear what their elected officials have to say.
While you may shed no tears for Trump, these platforms have taken the first step onto the slippery slope, which may be a logical fallacy but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a slide.
And what happens once is likely to happen again. After this, there’ll be pressure to get Facebook, Twitter and other companies to suppress other speech, such as fiery rhetoric against the police or oil companies or world trade authorities. People will demand: If you blocked A, why aren’t you blocking B? Aren’t you being hypocritical or discriminatory?
It’s not as if presidents are, or can be, “silenced.” They have press secretaries and conferences. When they announce something, it appears in the funny pages, even if not on page A1. But it still puts them at the mercy of social media when they choose to speak directly to the public or want to get something out now. Should they be able to do so, even if it’s false and nonsensical? If they’re the chief executive of a nation, doesn’t a nation want to know what’s going through, or popping out of, their head?
And then Eugene’s point about about “who else” filters down to the unwashed masses. There has been a huge vetting of QAnon accounts on the twitters, which means that they can’t spew their crazy conspiracy theories or plan their next attack on Twitter’s platform, but they also can’t talk about what they had for lunch or show their cat pics. Even if you’re good with the former, what about the latter?
And if you think it’s an acceptable price to pay to rid social media of the nuts, what makes you think your next twit won’t be viewed by someone, or some algo, as an expression Jack Dorsey can do without? What happens if Jack, Zuck, Jeff or Sergey decide it’s time to really flex their muscle and make SJ disappear with the speed of Parler? If they can do it to Trump, what president is safe? And if they can do it to a president, us groundlings don’t stand a chance.
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.