Saturday, 5 June 2021

Is Donald Trump's Social Media Ban A Good Thing?

Former US President Donald Trump has received a two year ban from Facebook and Instagram for praising the US Capitol rioters. This comes five months after Twitter issued him with a permanent ban for similar behaviour. 

At the time of the Twitter ban, many people celebrated and I was certainly among them, but many others, even on the left, expressed concern about freedom of speech and the power of tech giants to censor even presidents.

While my gut says social media should have red lines, I must acknowledge there is some validity to the concerns which have been expressed. This is a fine balancing act to get right and I can understand the reasoning of Facebook to issue a two year, rather than permanent, suspension. 

Facebook had initially made the ban indefinite, but have now clarified the ban will last until at least January 2023 and will only be removed if the risk to public safety has receded.

I understand Twitter is looking at ways to bring people back after they've been suspended, but I'm unaware of any concrete plans to do this, and Twitter has stated Trump's ban is indeed permanent. 

So were theses bans proportionate? Or are we seeing overreach on the part of tech giants?

Let's recap:

On 6th January 2021, a bunch of MAGA fanatics stormed the US Capitol building in an attempt to overturn Joe Biden's presidential election victory. The Capitol was locked down for hours while politicians' lives were at serious risk, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who hid in a toilet cubicle from those who had come to murder her.

Ocasio-Cortez was told to: "Hide, run and hide," and she snuck into her bathroom as an intruder entered her office and yelled: "Where is she?"

Ocasio-Cortez later said: "this was the moment where I thought everything was over. And the weird thing about moments like these is that you lose all sense of time.

"In retrospect, maybe it was four seconds. Maybe it was five seconds, maybe it was ten seconds. Maybe it was one second, I don't know. It felt like my brain was able to have so many thoughts.

"In between the screams and the yells, I mean, I thought I was going to die."

One person was shot dead by Capitol Police and 140 other people were injured. Three people died from natural causes and one more later died from a drug overdose.

Donald Trump and his family were watching live footage of the build up to these events, laughing and joking, having told the public the election was stolen from them. Many commentators have argued this was incitement and an attempted coup.

It must be emphasised, the riot started at noon that day, when Trump addressed a rally, saying: "If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."

During Trump's speech, thousands of attendees marched to the Capitol and breached police perimeters. Many individuals, armed with guns and tie wraps, marched into the building, facing shockingly limited resistance from police, who were either complicit or powerless to stop them. The evidence suggests some officers were complicit, but other officers and reporters were injured. 

The mob erected a mock gallows and chanted: "Hang Mike Pence!" because they had wanted the vice president to overturn the election result and they felt betrayed by him. Offices, such as the office of Nancy Pelosi, were vandalised and looted as police evacuated the Senate and House of Representatives. Pipe bombs were later found at the offices of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and molotov cocktails were discovered in a nearby vehicle.

Donald Trump was still president while this invasion was taking place and he refused to send in the National Guard to quell the mob. Surely, this in itself was an act of treason. Trump only agreed to stand down as President when members of his own administration turned against him and resigned en masse. A cynical person might suggest they acted in self-preservation, rather than moral principle.

The whole event appeared to be much more than a mere riot. It looked like an attempted coup, or at the very least, a dress rehearsal for one. It looked like the President was testing the waters to see how many supporters would be willing to fight for him, how many law enforcement officers would take his side, and how many of his administration would back him all the way.

I would suggest he used his gullible fanatical supporters and did not care one iota whether they lived or died or spent a very long time in prison. I would suggest he was thinking only of the possibility that if he stepped down, he might himself end up in prison for the shocking levels of corruption he seems to be guilty of.

So that's the background to this - an attempted coup - one in which politicians from both parties came close to being murdered, and one which Trump has repeatedly praised.

The thing about dress rehearsals is that next time, during the real thing, people come prepared, they learn their lessons and they have a much better chance of succeeding. Donald Trump's social media platforms were his most effective tool for rallying his base and turning them into fanatics convinced he is the only person who can save them. 

Save them from what, I'm not sure? The establishment, I guess. 

If only they were smart enough to understand, Donald Trump is the establishment. He is the establishment on steroids, just without its respectable face. He is the one who keeps embarrassing his fellow corporatists by saying the quiet parts loud and causing the US empire to lose credibility. But his and their goals of consolidating corporate wealth and power are still one and the same. 

Trump's supporters are too gullible to understand that "Make America Great Again" never meant taking them with him, it meant exploiting them. But many are radicalised to the point they believe the opposite is truth and they will die fighting for the man who is their ultimate enemy. There is a cruel irony in there somewhere.

So, while on the one hand, I absolutely believe in freedom of speech, I must, on the other hand, say freedom of platform is not an absolute right and social media giants must have their limits. And those limits must be imposed whenever public safety is at stake.

Again, there is a fine balancing act here, and the risks of tech giants deciding which members of the public, let alone which presidents, can speak on their platforms is concerning. While I don't think Twitter and Facebook are as monstrous as they're often portrayed (don't jump on me!) I certainly don't think they are great protectors of democracy either. Their preference appears to be to maintain the status quo and there is nothing democratic about that.

While today, tech giants are rightly censoring a former president who attempted a violent revolution, perhaps tomorrow, they will use the same argument to ban a lefty blogger who calls for peaceful revolution against capitalism. All it takes is a single out of context quote and they've got their justification, if they're so inclined.

Of course, I am absolutely in favour of banning those individuals who incite violence or racial hatred. Nobody would, for example, object to a ban on a person sharing child pornography, and surely those others things fall into the same category of extreme behaviour. But at the same time, almost any other political views, even unpalatable ones, must be protected.

So how do we balance this? Do we leave it in the hands of social media giants to decide what is and is not acceptable? 

There have been many reports of Palestinian activists being taken off social media for exposing the war crimes of Israel. The counter-argument would be these people are "terrorists" or "supporters of terrorism" and therefore their removal was justified. But who is really qualified to make that call? Why is one side allowed a voice in a decades-long conflict and not the other?

We could argue for legislation to protect free speech on social media platforms, but would that really be any better? You could imagine a Donald Trump or a Boris Johnson skewing such rules massively in favour of the right wing to protect their imperialist narratives. Their justification would be that anyone who opposes them is a threat to a democracy or supporter of terrorism or whatever.

Let's not forget the Tory government banned all books from anti-capitalists in schools, even if the content was not political. Governments love to censor people to consolidate their own power.

In other words, legislation to "protect" freedom of speech is not risk-free.

I honestly don't know what the answers are, but I understand and respect the argument of free speech absolutists, who say no political speech should be censored for the above reasons. I suspect this is going to be a problem which follows us into the future, one which we will never have easy answers for, and one which will inevitably result in as many good guys being censored as bad guys.

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