It finally happened. In the wake of deadly riots by pro-Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, a host of global and American organisations, including Deutsche Bank and the Professional Golfers’ Association, have cut links not just with extremist supporters of the American president but with Donald Trump himself.
The decisions are a damning indictment of Trump’s complicity in the attacks, given his incendiary messages in the days before January 6, the date of the scheduled confirmation of Joe Biden’s presidential victory by the US Congress.
Of the many severings between the sitting American president and the corporate world, none has arguably drawn as much attention as Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend Trump’s account. Facebook’s response has been somewhat less definitive, choosing to suspend Trump’s account till Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021.
Trump is apoplectic at having his mollifier-cum-megaphone taken away. After all, his Twitter feed has been inextricably intertwined with his public persona since well before his election as US President in 2016 – recall his rants about Barack Obama for years and years. Humiliated, Trump has responded with the bluster of a low-level political thug in India, threatening to find another platform or start his own social network.
A safe response
Long overdue though it may have been, Twitter’s decision is too little, too late, and reeks of the worst kind of hypocrisy. Far from being a courageous act, it is an easy and safe response, given that Trump has less than 10 days left before he has to formally cede power. Twitter also risks nothing in booting off Trump at this point, for the tide of public opinion has decisively swung against the American president. Even many of his allies and loyalists have very publicly disassociated themselves from the man.
If anything, banning Trump allows Twitter to fortify itself against the president’s threat to reform Section 230, the law that shields internet publishers from content generated by third parties. The rich ironies are surely not to be missed here: had Section 230 not been in place, Twitter might never have allowed Donald Trump to tweet most of what he has done so.
Indeed, Twitter’s decision – likely taken by CEO Jack Dorsey – is more a public relations response than a principled stand. As a private company, Twitter is legally within its rights to banish anyone from the platform. Twitter needs neither to be consistent about who it suspends nor why it does so. Twitter is not obligated to follow the First Amendment in the American context or any similar principle of free expression in another national setting.
But it is precisely this power to be inconsistent, without any accountability for the ethical implications of such inconsistency, that lies at the heart of the hypocrisy exemplified by Twitter’s ban on Trump. Such power is what enables social media companies like Twitter to profit enormously from hateful and abusive speech and to pander to authoritarian figures when it suits them, while allowing the companies to hide behind the fig leaf of platform neutrality and to mouth platitudes about commitments to free speech, enriching community, and contributing to the social good.
If Trump weaponised Twitter with devastating effect, spewing a never-ending stream of bilious lies, threats, and abuse for the better part of a decade or more, Twitter more than successfully monetised that hate – given the massive attention that such sentiments draw on social media. Trump reaped political capital, Twitter cashed in economic capital.
The same is true of Facebook. Big Tech has a classic defense about its position on what Susan Benesch has called “dangerous speech” – speech that may not technically rise to the level of hate speech but is nonetheless inflammatory and provocative. It claims that the answer to negative speech is simply more speech.
A naive hope
However, the idea that increased speech will lead to a self-regulating equilibrium with most discussion keeping within the norms of civil exchange is singularly naive or overly cynical
Social media companies would know better than anyone else that hateful and abusive content generates more user engagement than most positive speech online. Their business model, which depends on the level of user engagement, accordingly, has perverse incentives to leave dangerous and vile speech unmoderated even if they do not proactively encourage such speech.
This kind of calculation is likely what has informed Facebook’s firm decision to continue to allow known lies in political advertising on the platform.
Indians know this all too well. In the Indian context, social media networks and platforms have been mobilised in far more reprehensible and deadly ways than has been the case in the US. While WhatsApp has been the main culprit in enabling horrific violence against Muslims in India, Twitter has been the weapon of choice for Hindutva trolls to relentlessly hound minorities, the political opposition of the Bharatiya Janata Party, dissenters, and critics.
Years of civil society organisations flagging such abuse, media coverage of the phenomenon in the national and international press, and countless complaints by the targets of such abuse – from celebrities to ordinary Indians – have led to no changes in the policies and actions of social media companies in India.
I should add, as a matter of disclosure, that I have had the privilege of witnessing this unethical inconsistency of Big Tech and social media firms at unusually close quarters. Last year, Twitter suspended an account that I had founded and run for six years, for a satirical tweet-poll about allegations against BJP leader Amit Shah.
Curiously, Twitter itself initially sent me an email, in response to a complaint someone had filed about the tweet, communicating its decision that the tweet-poll did not violate Twitter’s rules. I was puzzled when the account was then suspended anyway. Perhaps, Twitter executives were rattled by the barrage of outraged tweets from trolls about the joke.
Yet, even granting that Twitter India’s executives were incapable of understanding satire or unable to follow their own principles consistently, the company has allowed, and continues to allow, far worse sentiments to be routinely expressed on what may be termed “Indian Twitter” – as long as these views are generated by those with sympathies for the ideology of Hindutva. During the time that I was on Twitter, for instance, I received several death threats from Hindutva trolls. Twitter did not respond to any complaints about these tweets.
The practice of profit-driven inconsistency highlights a major faultline in the current landscape of global information: there are no clear norms or principles by which the public obligations of private firms like Facebook and Twitter are to be decided and assessed. Given their vast reach and power and their central role in shaping global public discussion and debate, and, indeed, in altering the very norms of such discussion, this is a burning question that needs to be addressed post-haste for the sake of global democracy.
When it suits the companies, they blame algorithmic automaticity for their mistakes. At other times, the blame is laid at the door of human error. When it suits these Big Tech platforms, they invoke community standards or the social good or some ill-defined, feel-good concept to justify their actions. At other times, they defend their inaction against abuse by powerful figures (or those blessed by such figures) by grandstanding about free speech.
Twitter and Facebook allowed Trump and his supporters to run riot online before the latter ran riot in the hallowed halls of the Capitol in Washington, DC. Notwithstanding what they are doing in the US, neither company shows the slightest inclination to rein in the worst Hindutva trolls, some of whom continue to be followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Jack Dorsey of Twitter, with his lockdown-induced beard and dabbling in vipassana, may seem a far cry from the clean-shaven Trump who likely has zero interest in Buddhist meditation. Both of them, though, bear responsibility for the violence at the US Capitol.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University and author, most recently, of The Gita in a Global World: Ethical Action in an Age of Flux (Westland Books; forthcoming 2021) and The Virtual Hindu Rashtra: Saffron Nationalism and New Media (HarperCollins, 2019).