This week, Twitter found the courage to finally deal with its most toxic user: the President of the United States. After giving a humble reality check to one of Trump's untrustworthy tweets, the president exploded in a tantrum. He threatened to shut down social media companies, and then personally targeted a Twitter employee to intimidate and harass him. Then Trump quickly threatened revenge by signing an executive order that would blow up the entire Internet. Trump's Republican lackeys, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), rushed to fraudulently interpret the law's president's ego and threatened to sue Twitter, to fondle.
Republicans who recently warned of "government takeover of the Internet" are now staging a reverse – they are trying to make the Internet government.
So is Twitter a public body that doesn't deserve protection of the first change? No, that's silly – but it's at least somewhat ironic in this idea to track internet companies. Social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit have long sold a vision of themselves as sublime public spaces. In this vision, they bring people all over the world together and even lift them out of poverty to ensure freedom of expression.
In 2017, somewhere at the height of Facebook's self-esteem, Mark Zuckerberg shared a vision of his social network as a kind of quasi-government located between social institutions and actual governments:
Our world is more interconnected than ever and we face global problems that cross national borders. As the largest global community, Facebook can examine examples of how community governance could work on a large scale.
Facebook built institutions that look very much like actual government checks and balances. This year the company announced the members of its new supervisory board – something like a top Facebook court – who will make moderation decisions independently of one another. You can advise on Facebook's policies and even override the Facebook CEO. The group includes several political aristocrats, including the former Danish prime minister. Zuckerberg said the following about the group:
The board will be an advocate for our community – it supports people's freedom of expression and ensures that we live up to our responsibility for the safety of people.
That sounds a lot like what a government would say!
Facebook's role as a government has led to an attitude of free speech that often frustrates its ability to manage its community. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook ignored internal analysis, suggesting its algorithm was responsible for fueling the split. (Executives have reportedly ignored it.) As my colleague Casey Newton wrote in 2018, Facebook needed a genocide in Myanmar to realize that some speeches are so hateful that they cannot be sustained simply because they are current.
Outside of extreme cases, Facebook is still trying to be neutral about language monitoring. In a public speech on freedom of speech last year, Zuckerberg said that Facebook does not check political ads because "it is not right for a private company to censor politicians or news in democracy." When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced Trump this week, Zuckerberg beat his rival on Fox News. "We have a different policy from Twitter in this regard," said Zuckerberg, although the company's policies aren't really that different. "I firmly believe that Facebook should not be the arbiter of the truth about everything people say online."
Facebook is the biggest example with the most users, but again it is not unique. When I was on the Reddit internet campaign bus during the 2012 elections, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian carried a "Declaration of Internet Freedom" from city to city. They actually wrote it on a giant roll of paper, like revolutionary cosplayers:
Unfortunately, the era of Reddit education quickly collapsed and burned when the company tried to achieve both: to appear to its users as a government that adheres to an almost unlimited right to freedom of expression while inviting advertisers to live their brands alongside snuff , Racism and nude photos of celebrities. When Reddit made the Nazis go wild on its website to appear principally, it looked like a failed state. The company eventually learned that it couldn't survive pretending to be a government. As a result, it passed stricter rules against harassment and moderation and gradually began to isolate and ban entire forums with troublemakers.
Then there's Twitter. Twitter once identified itself as "the freedom wing of the Free Speech Party," a pithy doctrine that clung to the company like a foul smell when it was overrun by bad actors. Twitter and its industry peers have long been working on the principle that "more language is better", although internally it is recognized that in many cases this is a dangerous assumption with fatal consequences. I am sure that tech visionaries actually believe that they are doing the right thing by maximizing freedom of speech, although it is practical that this principle seems good for growth.
On the other hand, Twitter, Facebook and other major social networks have definitely increased enforcement against bad content in recent years. Organized harassment campaigns and the growth of government-sponsored misinformation have jeopardized the integrity of the networks. Robust moderation is not only a right of expression granted by the first change, but also a rational business decision. Why were these companies so afraid to show their right to moderation publicly? One answer is intimidation.
Tech companies have been besieged in recent years by a right-wing "bias" campaign led by President Trump and prominent Republicans. Despite conservative bias lawsuits that routinely fail in court, tech companies have lived in constant fear of the president's unpredictable anger and anger from his followers. As soon as Twitter labeled Trump's tweet this week, White House MPs instigated harassment against a single Twitter employee who received death threats. Trump has made it clear that opposing him will incur high and immediate costs.
The Republican Party has taken Trump's wave of reactionary excitement, once mocked by his colleagues. Republicans who once denounced him as a joke and crook are now greasy wheels in his engine out of defiance and revenge. He avoided any accountability in office, which apparently convinced the Republicans that even in an election year they could get away with an extremely unpopular policy.
We are now experiencing many emergencies at the same time. More than 100,000 people have died from the novel corona virus, and it is likely that many of these deaths could have been prevented by a competent federal response. More than 40 million people have registered unemployment in the country this year and are facing a new global economic crisis. Police officers continue to kill black people with impunity, leading to national grief and unrest. The country is again facing geopolitical threats from nations who want to disrupt the fragile machinery of our democracy. To exacerbate all of this trauma, we are burdened with a president who, by all standards, is unable to serve the public.
Facebook and Twitter's moderation decisions may seem like frivolous distractions on a normal day, but in the context of enabling Trump's rule, they need to be viewed in the broader context of American life. If the safeguards we thought we needed to prevent someone like Donald Trump from failing, what else is there? Who has enough power to turn the tide against a government slipping into authoritarianism and corruption? What if one of these people is the CEO of Twitter?
Trump's presidency was defined by cruelty and chaos, but one thing was consistent: the man loves to tweet. He used Twitter as a zero-day attack on traditional institutions during his first presidential campaign. You couldn't spend a day in 2016 without filtering the president's increasingly outrageous tweets through the television news. Twitter may have privately anticipated its role in assisting Trump in the election in the years that followed, but it remained publicly held that the President's tweets are current and important to democracy – even if the President violates Twitter's guidelines offends.
The president was previously on Twitter above the law. Jack Dorsey has finally taken action against a president who wants to lift all public and private power controls. As journalist Kevin Roose put it, Trump started a fight with the mods like an old forum warrior. The mods are on the rise.
The Republicans have spent years telling a wrong story about conservative persecution, and now they're trying to kill their imaginary monster. Trump and his allies want to deprive Twitter of his own right to freedom of expression just to challenge the president for his lies and wrongdoing. They plan to do this by turning the Internet's democratic vision against themselves: wrongly arguing that social platforms are not publicly intellectual, but legally public. After Trump has not ruled, he wants to saddle Twitter with the responsibility of governing.
Twitter is not the government, but it has power that the government does not have. It has the right to say that the President is lying. It has the right not to spread its calls for violence. And it has the right to completely ban it. Twitter has these rights, just like you and me, because of the first change that forbids the government to contain or force what we say or what we want it to say. In a way, Jack Dorsey got exactly what he wanted. He is the leader of the freedom of speech party wing.
Exceptionally, the answer to bad language is more language. Twitter speaks loudly.