Last week Silicon Valley silenced the president. In unison, the social media giants, with an assist from Amazon and Apple, also eliminated their most popular conservative competitor and announced that their own moderation policies would now extend to other companies. Meanwhile, CNN openly called for Fox News to be banned from cable, while a major talk radio network issued new speech rules to its hosts, extending tech’s moderation policies to the offline world. Beyond all this, Congress and the European Union called for powerful new regulation of online speech.
As a handful of unelected billionaires declare sovereignty over digital speech, where might the coming months take us?
Twitter once touted itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and rebuked Congress’ calls for it to ban terrorists, proclaiming that “the ability of users to share freely their views — including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent” — was its mission. Indeed, most of the early social platforms emphasized unfettered speech above all other considerations. Over the years, this utopian dream has given way to an emphasis on “healthy conversation” and ever-changing enforcement.
Yet for most of their existence, social media platforms have largely avoided censoring elected officials in the U.S. even as they have deleted the accounts of foreign leaders. That all changed last year as Silicon Valley for the first time began labeling President Trump’s tweets as “disputed” and “false.” As progressive segments of the public embraced this new censorship, platforms moved from merely fact-checking posts to deleting them entirely and threatening to ban some lawmakers.
The courts have repeatedly ruled that Trump’s Twitter account is an official government outlet and thus he is prohibited from blocking users with whom he disagrees. How then is a private company able to establish “acceptable speech” rules for a government publication or silence it entirely?
Perhaps more troubling is that speech rules no longer just govern social spaces. Uber, Lyft and Airbnb have all banned their services from being used by those whose online and offline political speech was deemed unacceptable. Facebook last year extended its reach to the offline world, banning certain kinds calls for protest while permitting others.
It was a remarkable sight to behold Democratic lawmakers and the press lamenting that Congress does not have the power to silence voices with which it disagrees and instead urging Silicon Valley to exercise the power only it holds: the ability to silence any voice from the digital world. And this plea came from the very lawmakers who had once condemned social platforms as dangerous monopolies.
Moreover, the companies’ announcements that they were permanently suspending the president referenced not potential illegal activity banned by law but rather the companies’ decision that permitting him to continue communicating with the nation posed too great a risk to democracy.
The companies themselves had little choice but to remove Trump or face even greater wrath from the new Democratic majority in Congress. Even the ACLU, in its condemnation of Twitter’s suspension of Trump, acknowledged the “political realities” of the incoming administration. Activist groups rushed to claim credit for silencing Trump, touting the high-level discussions they had had with Twitter leadership.
While there has been widespread support for Silicon Valley’s actions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of the dangers in silencing a democratically elected head of state. Moreover, while Democrats are narrowly focused on the present, in a world in which lawmakers and activist groups can wield the monopoly power of social media to mute dissenting voices, what is to stop a future Republican Congress from using those very same powers to silence Democrats? Such is the slippery slope we find ourselves on.
And what about alternatives to Silicon Valley’s platforms? Social media companies have long argued that they are not monopolies because it is possible for competitors to challenge them.
Twitter clone Parler had emerged as just such a competitor, reaching number one on Apple’s App Store this week as conservatives flocked to its minimally moderated platform. Yet within days Apple and Google had banned the sale of it from their respective app stores and banishing it from mobile devices. Parler’s cloud hosting provider, Amazon Web Services, evicted it, taking the site offline until a conservative cloud provider agreed to host it. Yet even if it can rebuild in some fashion, without a smartphone app and blacklisted by most service providers, Parler will be merely a shadow of its former self.