Free speech and free assembly are essential rights in any democracy.
Average citizens should always have the right to petition their government for redress, peacefully assemble (with reasonable limits during true emergencies, including pandemics), and protest. We hold these values deep in our hearts.
Speech, assembly, and protest are clearly protected under the First Amendment, but they only prevent the government from imposing undue restrictions on the population. It is a failsafe against an unchecked, Chinese-style authoritarian government where censorship is the rule.
That being said, corporations are not the government. They may restrict content on their platforms – and there are many legitimate reasons why they should. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and other social media companies all have sets of rules that define a code of conduct for users – and users agree to those terms in order to use their services.
In fact, it took a coup attempt on January 6 for Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to finally crack down on the former president. Likewise, it took far-right extremists organizing a violent insurrection online for Apple and Google to pull the far-right social media app Parler from the App Store and Google Play. (Parler is already back on the App Store.)
Big Tech’s laissez-faire attitude toward violent extremist groups organizing, recruiting, and spreading dangerous conspiracy theories and propaganda on their platforms is disconcerting, to say the least. They have contributed to the erosion of American democracy, allowing anti-democratic forces to propagate and thrive online while restricting users for artistic expressions of nudity.
So what should Twitter, Facebook, and other social media giants do about Trump?
Until January 20, 2021 at noon, Donald Trump was president of the United States. In effect, as president, he was the most visible representation of the American government with a dedicated communications staff, a press pool, and access to the international press. He was a regular on cable’s highest-rated ‘news’ network, Fox.
Needless to say, Trump enjoyed (as do all presidents) a giant platform, a megaphone – or, as President Theodore Roosevelt would say, a bully pulpit – even without his Twitter account. The idea that Trump’s Twitter and Facebook bans amount to unconstitutional censorship is laughable on its face.
However, just as social media companies have the right to ban him from their platforms, they also have the right to unban him. But should they?
As the lead organizer of anti-democratic and white supremacist forces in the United States, Trump poses a particular threat to American democracy. He has already attempted a coup, inspiring supporters to gather in Washington DC on January 6 and then instructing the mob to go to the Capitol as Congress convened to certify the Electoral College results.
Trump’s actions that day – and in the months both prior and since – have endangered the lives of our nation’s leaders. Former vice president Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were specific targets of insurrectionists, although all members of Congress can count their lucky stars that the plot was ultimately thwarted.
Indeed, law enforcement was less fortunate on that day. Outrageously, countless Republicans in Congress ignored the pleas of Gladys Sicknick, the mother of fallen Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. Instead, the focus of the likes of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been to re-write history and cover up Trump’s unprecedented attacks on our democracy.
Facebook’s ban extended but not permanent
In response to news that Facebook would extend Trump’s ban on the platform until January 2023 – while leaving the door open for a return – the disgraced former president yet again repeated the Big Lie.
“Facebook’s ruling is an insult to the record-setting 75M people, plus many others, who voted for us in the 2020 Rigged Presidential Election,” Trump said in a statement.
Should the ban get lifted, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he will immediately resume the same behavior that got him banned from social media platforms in the first place. He will use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms to lie, divide, incite violence, and spread conspiracies.
A second insurrection is certainly not farfetched. His supporters – including disgraced former National Security Advisor, retired general, and convicted felon Michael Flynn – are calling for a military coup. Flynn previously called on Trump to declare martial law and overturn the election results.
Should the government sanction Big Tech?
It should go without saying that what Trump and his acolytes are doing is not normal political discourse. It is sedition.
Social media companies who aid in undermining our democracy – either directly advocating the overthrow of a democratic government or simply failing to police their platforms – should find themselves in legal trouble for facilitating violence.
I also oppose laws in states like Florida that compel social media companies to host content that violates their terms. A new Florida law makes it illegal for companies to ban candidates. The Florida law directly challenges Facebook and Twitter’s ability to moderate content, including fake news and hate speech. It’s a dangerous law that should be immediately struck down.
We need to strike a balance – one that protects the rights of individuals to express themselves in actual public forums (i.e. on the street) and curtails the ability of violent extremists to organize.