President Trump is said to be “gutted” because the Professional Golfers’ Association of America voted to take the 2022 PGA Championship away from one of his golf courses. If only he could get a mulligan for his attacks against U.S. democracy.
But most of the right-wing outrage has been focused on the steps that Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies have taken to crack down on accounts that incite violence. Trump, the instigator in chief, found his Twitter account permanently banned and his Facebook account indefinitely suspended. Twitter went on to purge 70,000 accounts affiliated with the QAnon movement, while Facebook is taking down “Stop the Steal” posts. Trumpkins had hoped to keep posting their poison on Parler, but Amazon Web Services, Apple and Google stopped supporting that platform. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
The rage of the right is something to behold. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “Mao, Lenin, & Stalin are smiling. … Free speech is dead & controlled by leftist overlords.” The publisher of the right-wing newspaper Human Events tweeted: “The conservative movement is about to face a level of collective discrimination by the institutions of our society not seen since Jim Crow.” The chairman of the American Conservative Union tweeted that “it’s a digital Gulag.”
That these right-wingers are able to protest Twitter’s decision on Twitter refutes their silly scaremongering about the end of free speech. Indeed, the fact that Twitter banned the president of the United States shows that freedom of speech is very much alive in America. Any media organization in China or Russia that tried to shut down Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin’s lies would not be in business for long — and its owners would not be at liberty either.
But even those of us who believe Twitter and Facebook did the right thing can still be troubled by the unaccountable power exercised by a few Silicon Valley billionaires. German Chancellor Angela Merkel — the leader of the free world until Joe Biden’s inauguration — called Twitter’s move “problematic” and said that freedom of speech is of “elementary significance.” Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was even more critical. He called Twitter’s decision an “unacceptable act of censorship” and expressed concern that it could encourage further repression in countries such as Russia and China.
Unfortunately, Putin and Xi need no foreign encouragement to censor their critics. Navalny had a stronger point when he noted inconsistencies in Twitter’s enforcement of its standards. Among those who have kept their Twitter accounts, he noted, are “cold-blooded murderers” such as Putin, who was reportedly responsible for poisoning him. Moreover: “Those who denied COVID-19 exist freely and communicate on Twitter. Their words have cost thousands of lives.”
It’s legitimate to ask why Twitter shut down Trump now, after having let him spew for years, and why it hasn’t shut down the accounts of other illiberal leaders such as India’s Narendra Modi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The solution isn’t to break up tech giants, as many on the left want, or to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, as many on the right want. Breaking up the big companies would simply splinter the public discussion even further and make it even harder to police hate speech, lies and calls for violence. Repealing Section 230, which limits Internet companies’ liability for their users’ posts, would force them to crack down even more on controversial speech.
A better solution is to introduce more transparency and accountability into social media companies’ decisions to ban certain users — without risking heavy-handed government censorship. It’s a tough balancing act, but it can be done. Mark MacCarthy of the Brookings Institution suggests the creation of an independent industry arbitration panel that could oversee social media companies’ implementation of their own standards to make sure they are being fair and consistent. This would provide a way to appeal decisions by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg without forcing the government to rule on who should be allowed to say what.
But simply because social media companies need to be more transparent in their decisions doesn’t mean that they were wrong to ban Trump and some of his most deranged followers. If the companies had acted earlier — while Trump was spreading lies about election fraud — the Capitol might never have been attacked.