I’ve been wrestling with something the whole weekend: Whether Twitter’s suspension of Donald Trump’s account following his supporters’ storming of the Capitol is a good thing or a bad thing.
On the face of it, there’s only one answer to that question: A good thing, of course. Deplatforming fascists is always a good thing. The end result—Donald Trump being denied his primary method of communication with his base, and thus his means of mass incitement—is obviously a positive result.
Donald Trump didn’t create the troubles that plague the US. The white supremacy, the gross inequality, the tendency towards militarised violence. These run deep indeed. They were present before he took office, they created the conditions that led to him taking office in the first place, and his removal from Twitter or the White House will do nothing to ameliorate them, but at least his particular endless stream of far-right white nationalist rhetoric will no longer be adding fuel to the fire.
But there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of that simple-seeming question that bears further investigation and that makes the picture a fair bit more complicated than it first appears. My slight ambivalence isn’t over the net result. Trump’s been shut up. Thank f**k. It’s around the context of the shutting up: Who gets to shut who up; who gets to amplify who; and who controls it all.
Twitter shutting up Trump is great. It having the power to shut him up is not. Some might say that it is a good thing—or at least that it’s neither bad nor good; that it’s just a consequence of reality: This is a private business refusing service to someone who breached their terms of service, as is their right. But therein lies the issue. Twitter having the power to kick Trump (or anyone else) off its platform cannot be divorced from the fact that it had the power to elevate him as much as it did in the first place. And that is the hugely problematic crux of the matter. We shouldn’t have to settle for a situation in which our discourse is hosted and controlled by unaccountable private interests run by capricious billionaires, and we need to find a way out of this mess.
In the internet’s early days, much was made of its great potential for democratisation and decentralisation. For a while it looked like it could live up to it, but it wasn’t long before the vultures swooped in, turning the internet’s more open, diverse spaces into a series of enclosed, ever larger, for-profit lots, run by fewer and fewer companies according to their particular whims, and the freedom promised by the internet’s infancy has been harshly attenuated—and in many ways nigh-on obliterated. In place of a decentralised power model, you now have a landscape of tech-feudalism ruled over by a few almighty lords. Google decides which information gets seen. Amazon (through its web hosting arm) decides which website gets to stay online. And in the case of Twitter and Facebook, you have just two corporations who together control over 99% of online discourse—and even more ‘offline’ discourse, since Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014.
The monopolisation of public space by private corporations is obviously not limited to the internet. Society is under attack by profit-driven entities from every angle. Since the advent of the neoliberal era in the late seventies, we have ceded more and more power to the capitalists. Whether it’s cities being encroached upon by private spaces—with whole neighbourhoods ending up pockmarked with bubbles of corporate control masquerading as public space—or essential services being contracted out to private providers, the siphoning off of our collective wealth into a few pockets has been relentless, with an attendant deterioration of democracy and public well-being and health.
So while Twitter and Facebook’s monopolisation of discourse is troubling, it’s worth remembering that this is not a new phenomenon. Despite the extremely worrying ramifications of the situation, we may still be in a better place than we have been before—at least for now. As I’ve written before, while the legacy media cries over the proliferation of online ‘fake news’ and the sacrosanct nature of reporting, it mustn’t be forgotten or forgiven that they are the original masters of ‘fake news’ and propaganda. Let’s not forget that The Sinclair Group and its centralised shaping of public opinion exists. Or how the august institutions of print media gleefully lined up behind the Department of Defense and led us into the destruction of Iraq (among many, many other similar conflicts). Or how the UK’s media mounted the most vicious propaganda campaign in modern history when a politician suddenly appeared that seriously intended to challenge the status quo. Or how the most pressing issue of our time—capitalist climate change—has simply never been treated with coverage proportional to its potentially civilisation-ending significance. These institutions and interests have shaped the world in line with the goals of their masters.
So, yes, the dynamics of Twitter and Facebook are indeed troubling, but the monopolisation of information and the spread of propaganda is nothing new. It comes back to a point I’ve been advancing here for years: The media overall is the problem. Specifically the capitalist media, which creates a reality through ceaseless distortion and propaganda that suits the interests of its owners. So while it would be tempting to describe things in terms of the capitalist media’s ‘failures’, that framing doesn’t really stack up. Much the same way that more progressive-minded economists might describe our predatory capitalist economies as ‘failing’ to meet the needs of their citizens, the fact of the matter is that those economies are working just fine for the owner class that benefits from its structures and priorities.
These capitalist pressures extend to social media as it currently exists. As the world’s first ‘Twitter President’, Donald Trump is a very specific example of social media’s particular power (even though the legacy media also contributed greatly to his rise by gifting him with billions of free publicity, and on an even more fundamental level by helping to create the material conditions that led to his candidacy in the first place, but that’s an issue for another time). His use of the platform to communicate with and galvanise his base is significant, as is the platform’s eventual decision to remove him.
So, again: It’s good that he’s gone.
But questions remain.
How long was he allowed to be on there? How much harm was directly caused by his presence on there? How was the decision made to finally get rid of him? How many other virulently racist, violence-inciting accounts are active on Twitter as we speak? Who decides if they get banned or not and how?
As for how and why the decision to suspend Trump was made: The 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to incitement—even if Twitter was a public company—so this isn’t a free speech issue. Twitter being Twitter, it is also not a moral stand, obviously—just look at all the horrific bile they tolerated up until last week, and still do from other easily identifiable sources. No, Trump’s suspension is most likely Twitter covering itself in case any future lawsuits that may arise as a response to any violence that Trump’s incitement leads to.
Not to belabour the point, but once more: Trump being vanished like this is a good thing. The problem lies with the fact that it was essentially left up to the whims of a capitalist tech-bro. One who let it get that bad in the first place because in social media—in which we volunteer ourselves and our data (one of the most valuable commodities ever discovered)—it was profitable to keep Trump on. Trump was great business. Only now, when the tide began to turn and the threat of potential action against them in the future loomed, did they act. He would still be great business if he were on there, but the company decided to make a risk calculation. Maybe, on another day, they would have made a different decision. Capitalism’s fickle nature and historical blindness to and/or alignment with fascism is not any basis on which to run such a hugely significant platform with so much power to influence world events.
So all the questions come back to the central point: Something as powerful as Twitter should not be concentrated in private hands. It should not be run for profit. As Jennifer Cobbe and Elettra Bietti put it in the Centre For International Governance Innovation put it:
Like all technologies, platforms are political. Control of social infrastructure gives platform designers and operators power to shape society according to the ideologies of techno-capitalism and the interests of the companies that own them. Libertarianism, individualism, faith in the free market, and cyber-utopian beliefs that more technology will lead to better society have shaped much of today’s internet services and online platforms. Tech companies typically pursue “disruption” (loosening or dismantling existing societal bonds and building new relationships that depend on the tech industry’s services) and “scale” (chasing ever more users and more of their data from which profit can be extracted), and embed those particular logics into routine platform design decisions.
Neither should we really be cheering Twitter’s ability to shut down anyone at a whim. Though it made the right call in this instance to deplatform a fascist, one only need to look at the sheer volume of leftist, progressive, and dissident voices that are routinely silenced by deletion or marginalised by the algorithm on the platform as compared to the kid gloves approach it takes to right-wing content to see that—by and large—the worldview that is allowed to propagate on a platform run by capitalists is one that is friendly to its ideology. Much the same way that we should be wary of any additional legislation being passed to deal with ‘domestic terrorism’ in the wake of the attack on the US Capitol—knowing full well against which types of people and groups of which political affiliation it will disproportionately be used—so too should we be careful about applauding the fact that a media company with a monopoly on public discourse can silence anyone it wants to.
So what’s the solution here?
Is there a solution?
Much as some of us might be tempted to nuke the whole social media infrastructure from orbit, there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. I’m not convinced there should be either. All its dangers aside, going back to a model in which information was only distributed according to the diktats of a few old school media barons would not be desirable either. In some ways, we have not really evolved very much at all when it comes to the power relations at play behind the media, but it is undeniable that a greater plurality of voices has resulted, with activists—on both sides, alas—now having a means of networking that was previously denied to them and, especially, a direct line to their supporters.
Naturally, my personal reflex is to call for nationalisation. Any giant service like this with—in essence—a natural monopoly, that is bolstered by the fact that the more users there are on its platform the more valuable it is, should be looked at as a public utility, and should be treated as such. Remove the profit motive, de-fang a few billionaires, rescue the public’s data from the private sphere, and bring the whole thing into public hands where there can be some regulated oversight and accountability.
Of course, there are problems with the nationalisation approach too. Social media, and the truly galactic amounts of data that we have volunteered to it, is a volatile and easily weaponisable resource. In the UK, the publicly owned BBC—so often still touted as some bright light of objectivity (or even more laughably, ‘left-wing bias)—is a particularly insidious tool of the powers-that-be. In recent decades it has been made to be a tool of the right more and more—with a former Goldman Sachs executive with no media experience who used to be the boss of our now Chancellor of the Exchequer having now been announced as its new chairman—but it has always served the interests of the ruling class. In his book ‘The BBC: Myth of a Public Service’, academic Tom Mills details how the institution’s history is a testament to its elite-friendly nature, covering everything from the BBC’s official siding against the 1926 General Strike and against industrial action and workers in general; its invitation to MI5 and Special Branch to vet its staff; its full-throated support for the Iraq War; its dramatically unrepresentative, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated white staff; and Thatcher and subsequent Prime Minister’s stamping of authority on the institution.
So nationalisation by itself may not be the answer. We may need to pursue some truly ambitious means of public ownership and democratic control. There is a rich bounty of these being used around the world in local communities, but the truly global nature of something like Twitter or Facebook makes applying those a particular challenge. One possible alternative could be a truly democratic, truly global digital services initiative. This could be run, as per a piece in Jacobin:
[E]ither as a completely independent organization, or as a specialized agency working with the United Nations, along the lines of the International Labour Organization and International Telecommunication Union.
The aim of the GDSO would be to improve people’s access to digital communications tools by providing essential digital services for people to connect online. It should begin by adopting existing technology to run an internet search engine, a basic email service, and a social networking site, thus providing a replacement of some of Facebook’s and Google’s services, which could be expanded where needed.
It could be founded through a levy on global profits of tech companies and could receive ongoing funding through the establishment of a Citizen’s Digital Wealth Fund. This would be an expensive operation as services provided by Google and Facebook are extremely complex and difficult to run. This would also require the political will to socialize data centers and other hardware and infrastructure. Estonia’s pioneering “data embassies” provide an example of a public cloud operated from within the territory of another state, which could be used as a model for a new system.
In other words, according to Cobbe and Bietti again:
There is much work to do on the fundamentals of a functional social platform ecosystem before it becomes a reality. Although various initiatives in recent years have produced promising proposals, none has yet gone as far as to reinvent a workable new model. Whatever alternatives to privately owned platforms emerge, they will be resisted, appropriated and potentially destroyed. But that is not an insurmountable challenge. A new ecosystem must be resilient in the face of a corporate pushback.
Now more than ever, in an age where social relations are largely mediated, captured, moderated and manipulated for profit, we need to rebuild the roots of community and solidarity. We must build socially owned, pluralistic, democratic and privacy-preserving social platforms, services and communications channels that foster community and connection instead of corporate profit and shareholder value. While COVID-19 gave platforms a chance to become even more central to daily life, this pandemic also presents a window of opportunity to rethink the way platforms operate and the system they operate within. That window is closing quickly, but it’s not too late.
These kind of things may seem like a pipe dream. Envisioning their development and implementation around the world might not strike anyone as a realistic way out of the mess we find ourselves in. Yet, like it or not, we have to try. Much like our response to capitalist climate change, the changes we need to bring about in social media and big tech are going to become more and more existentially pressing as time goes on. These are the frontiers of our future battles as a species, and we need to dream big if we have a chance in hell of surviving the next century.
Or, you know, I wouldn’t mind just some consistency from Twitter, ya know? Like if you’re gonna ban Trump for inciting violence on a mass scale can I please also see Senators or Presidents pushing for regime change in the Middle East or coups in South America also being suspended? Nice one, that would be great, cheers.
Header Image Source: Getty Images