The events of January 6 have obsessed Donald Trump’s detractors, of all political stripes, for almost four months. Chances are this obsession will not fade anytime soon. One of the first repercussions of the 45th president’s alleged incitement of an alleged insurrection was his suspension from social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. Though Trump will never be back on Twitter, Facebook tasked a so-called independent Oversight Board to review the former president’s status. On May 5, that board decided that the ban should remain in place, pending a review to be conducted within six months.
The decision set off a firestorm within Republican Party ranks, prompting Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to suggest that Republicans might consider breaking up the tech giant.
Time for a Reckoning?
“It is a sad day for America,” Meadows said during an appearance on Fox’s America’s Newsroom. “It’s a sad day for Facebook because I can tell you, a number of members of Congress are now looking at: Do they break up Facebook? Do they make sure that they don’t have a monopoly?”
Meadows went on to point out the obvious politically-driven double standard: “And I can tell you that it is two different standards, one for Donald Trump and one for a number of other people that are on their sites.” Meadows is not wrong, of course. The double standard applies not just to Trump, but to everybody on the right side of the political divide. Conservatives are routinely suspended or banned from social media platforms – or have posts deleted – while those same companies turn a blind eye to all manner of threatening, abusive, or racist comments posted by left-wingers.
All this is aside from the fact that certain other world leaders, who are known for their incitement of and connections to violence and terrorism, are still given a platform by these companies.
Several other Republicans and prominent conservatives took to Twitter to weigh in on the Facebook decision. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wrote: “Facebook is more interested in acting like a Democrat Super PAC than a platform for free speech and open debate,” and warned: “A House Republican majority will rein in big tech power over our speech.”
Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute tweeted:
“The Facebook Oversight Board is a dumb distraction from the actual issue of Facebook’s hegemonic control over global political speech, reinforced today by the platform anointing itself with the moral authority to memory hole future world leaders at their own discretion.”
Vast Influence Without Accountability
The issue of free speech on social media platforms will inevitably boil over at some point into legislative action. It is more complicated than simply insisting that, as private companies, the Twitters, Facebooks, and Googles of the world have no obligation to uphold constitutional rights. It is true that the First Amendment begins with the words: “Congress shall make no law … “ It doesn’t say anything about private sector businesses. However, the largest social media companies have now become the de facto gatekeepers of the public square, and that changes the paradigm.
The cyberspace into which individuals post their comments, musings, opinions and funny cat memes does not exist within the confines of a private facility. It is, by definition, a public space, since any member of the public who has the means to connect to the internet has access to that space. While private commercial entities can – or should – be allowed to regulate what goes on within their own facilities in any way they wish, there is a strong argument (and not just a moral one, but also a legal one) that private companies do not have the authority to prevent citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights in a public space. To do so, they are in effect assuming the power of government.
Could a clever attorney or constitutional scholar, who favors censorship of certain opinions, make an argument that the public square analogy does not apply? Quite possibly. Could one suggest that social media users are utilizing space on privately owned servers and, therefore, it is for the owners of those servers to decide what is, and is not, allowed? That is also a possibility. The weakness of these potential counter arguments, however, is that they are disregarding the enormous power and influence of social media platforms over politics, culture, economics, and voting patterns; over every activity that makes up a part of modern society, in fact.
These companies are not simply providing a service; they are facilitating a relatively new level of human interaction. That they should be allowed to set their own rules governing that interaction is – or should be – terrifying.
Given their enormous power over public opinion and actions, there is no morally acceptable argument that social media companies should be able to arbitrarily decide which opinions are acceptable, and which are not. Unless and until Facebook and Twitter start charging a fee for access to their platforms, thus rendering them no longer universally accessible, they are exerting a level of power over the decision-making of ordinary people that should be considered ethically, morally, and politically unacceptable – so long as they are filtering out content that, for their own reasons, they have decided they don’t want the public to see.
Put simply, the very course of human behavior and thinking is being steered, to an extent, by social media content – and that content is controlled by companies that are currently immune from all accountability and liability.
As for Donald Trump, he will continue to find alternative methods of disseminating information to, and communicating with, his supporters. Twitter and Facebook are merely making that channel of communication less convenient. They may have made a near fatal error, however, for the world of modern politics is an abyss and, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “[I]f you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Read more from Graham J. Noble.