This week President Trump’s Twitter account was suspended. So I thought I’d share some thoughts. I’ll forgo the details of the events. Chances are if you’re reading this, you know them already. So, on to the discussion.
First, the low hanging fruit: I know most already get this, but it bears saying it out loud. This isn’t a 1stAmendment issue. The Constitution protects from censorship by the government. Twitter is not the government. So if you see anyone claiming this is a 1stAmendment issue, and they have any understanding at all about government and the Constitution, it’s a good tell it’s a partisan jab. No one’s rights are being violated here. There is no right to Twitter.
Second, the should be obvious low hanging fruit. A privately owned company banning a government leader from communicating on their platform is not “the sort of thing that happens in China”. Or any other authoritarian countries. In fact, it is the inverse of the sort of thing that happens in countries where the government controls the communications and the platforms and the only one getting banned is getting banned at their leisure. So, no, this isn’t an authoritarian act. And if someone call a Twitter ban Orwellian without mentioning that Twitter usage by the head of state to settle scores as also being Orwellian, that’s a good tell they too are partisan.
Once we get past those points, we can have the better discussion around should Twitter ban the head of state of the government from their platform. That’s where it starts to get tricky.
One could try to start and end the discussion with a narrow precedence argument. In the cosmic decision flow chart you could say ask: Did the user stand on a stage and tell a group of protestors to march on the Capitol and then egg them on by using your platform from their office? And (this is really the important part) then did that result in criminal activity, deaths, destruction of property AND (not or) the disruption of the American democratic process.
If yes…then ban. If no…then don’t ban.
That’s not the worst argument to make. But it probably won’t satisfy some of the more nuanced questions. Twitter clearly can do this. But should they?
There’s no easy way out on that question. “Should” implies some ruling on whether or not this is the right thing to do. And I don’t think we know that. If the world is a better place and social media has a more positive impact on society ten years from now and we point back to this as cause, then we have something to talk about. But no one knows that. And people telling you “this is what happens when you do this” aren’t being honest. Because they don’t know. This is not the sort of slippery slope we understand yet. So the best we can do is think through a couple of things specific to this event.
The first thought I have is related to power dynamics. Being able to simultaneously be the head of government and express personal views and grievances pretty much non-stop creates an asymmetry we didn’t really understand. And if you include the reality that sometimes he is declaring policy and sometimes is picking a fight with an individual American citizen and sometimes he’s spreading patently false lies, then we get to a good question. If one is thinking Orwellian, political opponents or even just civil servants trying to do their job living in fear of the algorithm powered, sharable, tech enabled lightning bolt tweet from on high is pretty close. Should Twitter feel compelled to enable that?
Twitter makes it possible for one man to represents power given to him by law and democracy without any buy in from the institutions he has been trusted with. Even now after his Twitter account has been banned, the President can talk to America any time he wants. His POTUS Twitter account is live. He has the most capable press room in the world. And every journalist would drop everything to take his call. He chooses personal Twitter because it’s the only medium that doesn’t require any other person to be a part of it. It is pure Trump. And so he can say things that no one, outside of loyal political supporters or family, would ever be willing to see themselves stand bye.
What Twitter is saying is that it requires them. And so they have to live with their part in what he’s doing. And they don’t want to. And January 6thwas too far. A better question comes out of this. Is it appropriate for a head of state to have a personal account he uses for official business? I don’t know the answer but it really appears to be dependent on what they do with it. This is one slippery slope we appear to have found the bottom of. And it’s not good.
The last, and frankly the most significant part of this has to do with Twitters role broadly in public discourse. There is only one Twitter. And the question that comes with the sort of success the Facebook’s and the Google’s and the Twitters have is are they accountable for being the public domain, or are they just a company. Are they HBO? Or are they television. Presently they operate as television while actually being a company. And in doing so they run the risk of regulation that breaks them up and diminishes their advertising business model. By banning Trump or others, what Twitter is saying is that they have opted out of the public domain role. They are not television. They are HBO. And HBO gets to choose their content. That no one else has built a competitive platform is not their problem.
Now we’re into questions that start to spiral us out of control. HBO doesn’t require other watchers to be watching in order for the platform to be useful as social media requires memberships to be useful. Does that matter? Other nations use Twitter to protect against authoritarian regimes. Now they all have to worry about who gets deplatformed and why. And that’s bad. But should they really be depending on a private company in California to solve that? And isn’t doing something to avoid future regulation actually just the government doing it? And then at the end of the day wasn’t this always really just going to be up to Twitter. What happens when Jack isn’t there anymore? Or Zuckerberg? If it’s just a norm…well, we see how norms stood up to Trump.
Those are all good questions. But none of them are answerable within the existing framework of how the internet is regulated, operated or marketed. In the end, it was always just going to be up to Twitter. And it’s hard to see how that’s a sustainable way ahead. The EU, whose only real source of governance is regulation, will likely move quickly here to decouple from dependence on U.S. Internet. China did long ago. Others will follow. And so decentralization of the Internet is truly here.
If you’re wondering why people make a big deal of cryptocurrency, the shape of the argument for decentralization of currency looks similar to that of the internet.
Lastly, if one has the belief that you should keep the truly dangerous people on platform so you can see them, than you’re admitting they’re an adversary. And now we’re beyond the principled discussion of free speech and on to one of tactics. When it comes to adversary communications, you want to make it hard for them to organize. Not easy. There’s no shortage of counter insurgency experience in America today. Are we there? I don’t know. But we’re certainly accelerating. And that’s a slippery slope we know well. And another unanswered question.
To answer the original question of whether Twitter should have de-platformed Donald Trump, I can only answer that I don’t know. My personal preference is yes. But that’s not always a good tell. Ask me in 10 years and I might be terribly shortsighted. . But the reasons I don’t know for sure are what’s truly important here. Nothing changes when nothing is different. And this was different. And so change will follow.