Ctrl + Alt + Delete the President. Last week, after a violent riot at the capital, Twitter and Facebook erased the President of the United States from social media. He was further banned from, or severely restricted from communicating by: Reddit, Twitch, Shopify (??), Snapchat, TikTok, and Stripe. Within 24 hours, amidst a chorus of "it’s just the free market, losers, if you don’t like it build your own app," Google and Apple worked in concert to remove Parler, the "free speech" alternative social media app popular on the political right, from their app stores. Amazon followed the move with the equivalent of tech industry napalm, taking the extraordinary step of suspending Parler from using Amazon Web Services, effectively shutting the company down. The loosely-framed charge against both Trump and Parler was incitement of violence and insurrection. There were no trials. There was no evidence presented for any crime formally argued. This is law in the age of corporate oligarchy. It is purposefully ambiguous, it is uncompromising, and when you run afoul of the powers that be, there is no recourse. Not even for the "most powerful man in the world."
This of course begs the question: who is actually in charge right now?
Today, the internet is a life-critical layer of our world. In some sense, what happens on the internet — from payments to communication — is all that matters, as without it few things of significance in the "real world" are possible. You would be forgiven for not remembering that Trump was impeached last year, as it meant practically nothing. But erasing him from the internet? If this sticks, and Trump can no longer communicate or raise funds at scale, a small handful of unelected tech executives just ended a president’s political career. In theory, they can legally do this to anyone, which means they are effectively the most powerful people alive. Silicon Valley is our nation’s shadow capital, argues Katherine Boyle, and welcome to the shadow state. It is not a democracy.
The immediate arguments both in favor and against Trump’s censorship were equally ridiculous. From the camp against, we were told the technology industry’s actions were comparable to Chinese-style censorship. This is not even close to true. The Chinese Communist Party executes political dissidents, and while our nation is not immune to such governance, and many Americans do perversely seem to want CCP-style censorship, such dystopia has not yet descended on our country. As Dan Primack correctly notes:
From the camp in favor of vanishing Trump — people who have warned us of some ambiguous corporate overreach for decades, which I suppose in hindsight only ever meant "money people bad" — we were told this is simply what a free market looks like. Free speech cannot be constitutionally guaranteed where private corporations are concerned, as it infringes on the owner of a company’s rights to free association and speech (again, an interesting point of concern from the "business is always wrong" corner of the commentariat). If you don’t want to be vanished, we’re told, build your own sprawling, multibillion-dollar, duopolistic communications platform. But legally speaking, this is in the first place not straightforward.
In Pruneyard Shopping Center Vs. Robins, the Supreme Court ruled California could protect political protesters from being evicted from private property. This case built on a body of law that flourished throughout the 60s and 70s, and included such cases as Marsh v. Alabama (1946), Lloyd Corporation Ltd. v. Tanner (1972), and Amalgamated Food Employees Union Local 590 v. Logan Valley Plaza (1968). We haven’t even touched the Sherman Antitrust Act, or the much-discussed Section 230, and this is already complicated. In any case, the notion one should simply build a competitor platform if he isn’t happy with his Twitter ban has never really been serious, as everyone who works in tech is well aware it isn’t possible to build such a platform absent ideological submission to the shadow state. This was plainly evidenced by Parler’s fate last week.
If a natural right can’t meaningfully be exercised, can it really be said to exist? David Sacks has been absolute fire on this question all week:
The American Bill of Rights was written at the time of the printing press, a machine that anyone could buy, the street corner, on which anyone could sell a paper, a system of public roads and walks for distribution, and thousands of small businesses that comprised the "market," any one of which, absolutely, could refuse to sell a paper, but no one or two (or five in obvious collusion) were capable of censoring a single voice out of public existence. Today, the internet is the gateway through which almost our entire democracy is conducted. It is where we go to learn about the world, almost without exception. It is our contemporary printing press, our street corner, our public roads and walks, and our market, all combined and dominated by a small handful of giants from the same class, of roughly the same politics, and from mostly the same region.
Should this tiny, unelected group of people so-empowered be allowed to vanish any voice from public, for any reason? Is this truly in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution? Separate from the legal questions: is this the kind of country you want to live in?
We are in danger, here — clearly, come on, you know that this is true — of something very dark.
Ok but insurrection though. I recently spoke with a tech executive who supported Trump’s ban from public existence. He asked what theoretical action I would think worthy of such incredible censorship from the industry. A coup? Insurrection? What about incitement of violence? Herein lies tech’s only reasonable defense of itself, and the most popular argument in favor of Trump’s purge from the internet: he was hurting people. Isn’t that enough to act? The problem is the evidence here is ambiguous, and the argument lends itself to valid accusations of hypocrisy, as all of these things have been perpetrated by other political leaders, both at home and abroad, and often in a manner not ambiguous at all. The position is also somewhat naively oblivious of a political leader’s role, which is — I hate to break it to you, folks — violence. This is not to say violence is okay. This is not to excuse any of Trump’s deeply unhelpful ambiguity. This is only to say the logical consequence of the technology industry’s extraordinary actions last week must necessarily be massive, global censorship. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether or not censorship of this kind would be healthy. Is it really what our shadow state is planning? Because if dramatically accelerated speech crackdowns aren’t on the menu, tech’s actions sum only to narrow, draconian, partisan censorship.
It should go without saying I’m against activist political violence, and think everyone who participated in last week’s riot at the capitol should be tried and, when convicted, jailed. But I’ve said it anyway, repeatedly, both specifically in the context of the capitol riot and consistently, in every other context we’ve seen such behavior, throughout most of our batshit crazy 2020. I have felt compelled to speak about this issue as often as I have because what took place in Washington last week was not an outlier event.
The capitol riot was the latest in a string of unacceptably violent outbursts for which media personalities, activists, and politicians have spent the last year apologizing, and in many cases, by the standards to which we are now holding Trump — "dog whistles," contributions to a "culture of hate" or "violence" — actively encouraging. Some cases have been less ambiguous. "Non-violence is an important tool for protests," wrote Slate magazine this summer amidst a kind of chaos we have not seen on American streets for over half a century, "but so is violence." People were killed at the capitol, and property, both public and private, was destroyed. A federal building was invaded. All of these things are insane, and wrong, and intolerable. They are also illegal. Again: these people should be tried, and when convicted sent to prison. But have we so soon forgotten our summer of love in the CHAZ? Or do we simply believe the MAGA Viking more likely to succeed in "insurrection" than the unhinged Stalinist baristas in Seattle explicitly calling for revolution?
I’ve been told repeatedly this week, while raising questions about a scale of censorship we have literally never before seen, that at least one of the capitol rioters was planning an assassination. This is chilling. If proven true, it will unfortunately also not be unique. Have we already memory-holed the Republican Congressional baseball shooting, where Congressman Steve Scalise and three of his colleagues were nearly killed by an unhinged Bernie Sanders stan? And how do we think this would-be assassin was radicalized? Carrier pigeon? No, the internet appears to be catalyzing significant political radicalization. The problem is deep, and broad. It is also by the way something I write about not infrequently. I’m glad the industry is finally concerned with the phenomenon, but is Jack Dorsey really prepared to own the issue? Because I’m sorry, but the problem isn’t Trump’s Twitter account, no matter how easy that would make this — in a sense, the problem appears to be Twitter. I’m pretty sure it’s driving us insane.
Gather round, friends. Have I told you yet about the time (this Christmas Eve) when a wildly-popular Marxist podcaster expressed a desire to see me dead in direct response to a piece I wrote about his fiancé’s boss, my San Francisco district supervisor? What about the time, immediately after, when his followers asked for my address, presumably to kill me? Do yourself a favor and keyword search the word "guillotine," or the hammer and sickle emoji (which, while we’re on the topic, why the fuck does that exist?). Here’s the San Francisco chapter of the DSA, which dominates our local politics:
Mao Zedong is responsible for the greatest mass murder in human history. Is endorsing something so evil not a violation of our shadow state’s terms of service? Follow-up question: how many times does a political party have to acknowledge it is overtly interested in violent government overthrow before their messaging counts as the incitement of insurrection it explicitly, obviously is?
A decade ago, tech leaders proudly credited their platforms with catalyzing revolution in Egypt. They have had noticeably less to say about the military dictatorship that immediately followed, a trend I explored in Jump. Back home in the current timeline, the New York Times has reported extensively on the Chinese government’s global disinformation machine, especially in the context of COVID-19. But the CCP’s disinformation strategy is neither limited to the topic of pandemic, nor to distribution via clunky bots and crazy people. Their official government channels, as well as their state media channels (literally state-controlled propaganda outlets), are all presently contributing to a hurricane of insidious lies about everything from public health to the genocide in which they are presently engaged.
Why has every CCP account and propaganda outlet not been permanently scrubbed from US social media platforms? Why has Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, a holocaust denier and violent dictator who has repeatedly threatened nuclear war on Twitter, not been removed from the platform? What about the DSA’s pro-mass murder shit? What about every single media personality who just this summer said rioting, and political violence, was justified? Are Apple and Google executives at all concerned about the insanity pouring out of Twitter and Facebook, and are they considering removing these platforms from their app stores? If not, why not? Are Twitter and Facebook protected from such action for no other reason than Dorsey and Zuckerberg promised to try their best to censor the bad guys? Does it not matter that they’re failing, every single day, dramatically and obviously?
The beautiful thing about America’s history of free speech is most of our edge cases — the rare examples of speech that have needed, for purposes of public safety, to be censored — have been addressed over two-hundred years of thoughtful legal dialogue. However, there is an argument that speech at the scale initiated this past decade by social media companies presents challenges never before seen by American lawmakers or justices, and therefore requires new consideration. I am open to this argument. I think it’s possible, for example, that a world in which any single person has direct, instant access to 100 million people is unstable in a way we haven’t yet fully appreciated. I think the impermanence of the internet, and the fundamental malleability of information online, presents significant opportunity for manipulation, and deep fakes are poised to catalyze a chaos for which we are absolutely not prepared. All of this is just new. But mostly what it seems to indicate is our politicians have abdicated their responsibility to govern. If the world is truly fundamentally changed, we need new laws.
For years, Zuckerberg has begged Congress to craft a set of rules for him to follow concerning online speech. Among tech executives, he is not alone in his discomfort with shouldering responsibilities that seem to border on governance. But Congress has not even attempted to answer his requests. Instead, they’ve opted to regularly berate him in performative public trials, none of which lead anywhere. As our politicians refuse to lead, tech executives naturally feel pressure to act, and for this I do have sympathy. But the precedent set last week was incredible, and if it isn’t followed broadly, and fairly, it will not be — and should not be — remembered kindly.
Presently, Americans are living in a world in which the Chinese Communist Party is operating freely across the internet, and their sitting President is not. With that, at the very least, no one should feel comfortable.
It’s not a new question, and it’s never been more important. We tend to love an absolute power when it’s on our side. But, at the end of the day, who watches the Watchmen?