Platform ban of Trump and Parler raises questions about speech and power

Note: A version of this post was originally published in the daily newsletter from the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer.

As Donald Trump’s rhetoric became increasingly disconnected from reality during the election campaign, spreading conspiracy theories about widespread voting fraud (for which there is absolutely no evidence), Twitter and Facebook both took to adding disclaimers, labels, and other warnings on his statements, and in some of the worst cases blocked them from being seen until the president deleted them. But after the storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters, both platforms have banned the president from their services completely, with Twitter spending a considerable amount of time playing Whac-a-Mole blocking other accounts that Trump tried to use to spread his message after his was permanently disabled. And now, a wave of bans against both Trump and his prominent supporters has spread across much of the social web — YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, SnapChat, etc. — as well as payment services and financial intermediaries like PayPal, Venmo, Stripe and GoFundMe.

This kind of de-platforming isn’t unprecedented: It happened to right-wing gadfly Milo Yiannopolous, and then to Alex Jones of InfoWars, and to Gab (a right-wing would-be alternative to Twitter), and to 8chan, a Reddit-style community now known as 8kun. But it’s the first time the nuclear option has been used against a president of the United States. And even as the nation was trying to come to terms with the Capitol riot, the actions taken against Trump were raising questions: his supporters claimed it was an affront to his First Amendment rights (despite the fact that the First Amendment only applies to actions taken by the government). For some critics, the question was why the platforms didn’t act sooner. For others, the concern was more about whether private entities should ever have that kind of power over speech. But as troubling as the president’s de-platforming might be, some of the most dedicated defenders of free speech and individual rights said they agreed with the ban.

Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute said while the platforms should be biased in favor of leaving the speech of political leaders up, “there are limits to this principle. A political leader who uses his account to incite violence is causing harms that can’t be countered by speech.” When the platforms believe a leader is doing so, he says, they’re justified in suspending his account. Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that the removal of a president might seem surprising, but when you look outside the US, “you would see that Facebook has booted off Lebanese politicians and Burmese generals, never mind the millions of others who have been booted by these platforms, often without cause.” Kate Ruane of the ACLU, however, said in a statement that “it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

Even more problematic to some observers was the fact that Amazon kicked Parler, another right-wing Twitter clone, off the company’s AWS hosting service for violent content. If Twitter and Facebook are like restaurants, Amazon’s cloud-hosting unit is more like the highway one takes to get there, or the power company that keeps the lights on. It isn’t the only such host, but it is one of the largest. Meredith Rose, senior policy counsel for Public Knowledge, pointed out that “AWS is an infrastructural layer of the internet. No matter how you feel [about Trump], that’s a much different question.” Cloudflare, which protects websites from attacks by trolls and hackers, wrestled with similar issues when it removed 8chan and the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. Chief executive Matthew Prince wrote about how he didn’t feel he had “the political legitimacy to make determinations on what content is good and bad. Questions around content are real societal issues that need politically legitimate solutions.”

Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey said while he defended these actions, “over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.” Meanwhile, a number of researchers pointed out that Twitter and Facebook are just part of a much larger problem, one that implicates outlets like Fox News and even CNN. “Twitter was never the main problem,” said UNC researcher Daniel Kreiss. “It was how journalists and the media ecosystem amplified Trump’s tweets. Twitter deplatforming only works if journalists also follow suit.” Harvard Law lecturer and Lawfare blogger Evelyn Douek said it was fine for the Democrats in Congress to say they plan to look into the role that social media played in the riots at the Capitol, “but any attempt to work out what incited the Capitol riot without also looking at the broader media ecosystem will be like trying to ask a doctor to diagnose a patient by looking only at their limbs.”

Here’s more on the platforms and speech:

A tinderbox: Sam Lessin, an early Facebook staffer, wrote at The Information (which was founded by his wife Jessica) that “the move by social networks to deplatform President Trump last week was the right call. In reality, he left Facebook and Twitter no other choice.” But he added that the moment will be “remembered as a watershed moment for the history of free speech and the globally open internet. It has the potential to be a tinderbox that undoes the core of the internet as we know it.” Lessin says the moves will “create intense pressure to censor private messaging (starting with email) and that other countries will “now have a very legitimate argument they need their own control” of information platforms, and even the internet itself.

State actors: In a WSJ op-ed piece, author Vivek Ramaswamy and constitutional scholar Jed Rubenfeld argued that the social platforms “should be treated as state actors.” Technology companies are traditionally seen as being free to regulate content because they are private, and the First Amendment protects only against government censorship, they say, but “that view is wrong. Using a combination of statutory inducements and regulatory threats, Congress has co-opted Silicon Valley to do through the back door what government cannot directly accomplish.” The two argue that Congress violated the First Amendment when it enacted Section 230, because it allows companies to “censor constitutionally protected speech.”

QAnon purge: Twitter said late Monday it purged more than 70,000 accounts affiliated with conspiracy theory QAnon following the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol last week. Twitter said in a blog post that it removed the accounts “to protect the conversation on our service from attempts to incite violence, organize attacks, and share deliberately misleading information about the election outcome.” The company said it began suspending the accounts on Friday afternoon, citing an increased risk of harm between online speech and real-world events.

Other notable stories:

Google is suspending political ads and any reference to “impeachment, inauguration or protests at the U.S. Capitol,” beginning Thursday. “We regularly pause ads over unpredictable, ‘sensitive’ events when ads can be used to exploit the event or amplify misleading information,” Google said in a statement Wednesday. “Beyond this, we have long-standing policies blocking content that incites violence or promotes hate and we will be extremely vigilant about enforcing on any ads that cross this line.”

High-level editors at The New York Post instructed staff members this week not to use reporting from CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post as the sole basis for any Post article, according to a report from the Times. The paper said it spoke to three journalists from the Post, who described the new rules on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. The order was handed down by Michelle Gotthelf, the editor in chief of the paper’s website, the three Post journalists said.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan looks at what has happened to the media since Trump was elected in 2016. “Tragically, crucial sources of local news have withered, while the toxic media of the radical right thrives,” she writes, but “the reality-based national press, though flawed and stuck for too long in outdated conventions, has managed to do its job — with dedication and with bravery, given the dangers created by Trump’s antipathy to what he calls ‘the enemy of the people.’ And that is a damn good thing because, without that digging and that truth-telling, we would be utterly lost.”

A new report from Thomson Reuters explores how the COVID crisis has impacted on journalists and journalism in emerging economies and the global south. It features the voices of 55 journalists in 26 countries, discussing the pandemic’s impact on the personal safety and welfare of journalists, the structure of newsrooms and disruption to business models, the proliferation of fake news, and surging threats to media freedom. The journalists are all alumni of training provided by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Aviva Stahl writes for CJR about “special administrative measures,” the term used for gag orders that are placed on a very small number of federal prisoners or detainees, either pretrial, post-trial, or both. They are imposed at the discretion of the attorney general when he or she believes there’s a “substantial risk” that the communications of an incarcerated person could pose a public threat. This is the kind of gag order that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would have faced if he had been extradited to the US, and it is “a grave threat to free speech,” Stahl says.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Karen Kornbluh of the German Marshall Fund, a former ambassador to the OECD, and Rutgers law professor Ellen Goodman argue that the US should create a new PBS of the Internet to “ensure a strong online supply of trustworthy, nonpartisan scientific and election information.” This should also include “the participation of anchor institutions such as libraries and schools to promote civic engagement,” they argue, and even incentives to reinforce democratic norms, as well as protocols to surface and prioritize authoritative information on digital platforms.”

Bridget Foley, the executive editor of Women’s Wear Daily, and a pillar of the paper’s fashion coverage for more than 30 years, has been laid off, according to a report from New York magazine’s The Cut. “It’s a huge part of my life,” Foley said. “It’s been a privilege to cover this industry through such remarkable times of change. I was privileged as a chronicler, and also as a participant, to be involved at a very heady time in fashion and media.”

About half of US adults (53 percent) say they get news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” according to a new research report from the Pew Center. Among 11 social media sites asked about as a regular source of news, Facebook sits at the top, with about a third (36 percent) of Americans getting news there regularly. YouTube comes next, with 23 percent of US adults regularly getting news there. Twitter serves as a regular news source for 15 percent of US adults.

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