Twitch, for the not-so-trendy, is Amazon’s streaming platform, which the company purchased for nearly $1 billion in 2014. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, is also a Trump archenemy. Trump has had an account since 2019, using his channel to post rallies and speeches. But recently, in a move sure to trouble free-speech connoisseurs, Twitch suspended Trump’s account for “hateful conduct” related to his speeches.
I realize it’s hard to miss something you didn’t know existed (my hand is raised), but Twitch seems less virtuous than politically pragmatic. Trump’s behavior is hardly new, and his words, though often a syllabic tangle of wandering logic, haven’t suddenly become offensive.
In defining “hateful conduct,” Twitch leaves no base uncovered. It means “any content or activity that promotes encourages, or facilitates discrimination, denigration, objectification, harassment, or violence based on . . . race, ethnicity, or national origin; religion; sex, gender, or gender identity; sexual orientation; age; disability or serious medical condition; veteran status.” Any hateful conduct is considered “a zero-tolerance violation.”
In other words, “Donald J. Trump.”
One example cited by Twitch comes from candidate Trump’s 2015 speech in which he referred to immigrant Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, as well as some who are “good people.” This statement has become an oft-repeated indictment of the president’s perceived xenophobia, racist-nationalist attitudes and his approach to governing.
Trump is notoriously clumsy with the English language, granted, but his supporters believe they know what he meant. Here’s my translation: If we don’t strengthen our U.S.-Mexican border, criminals, including drug traffickers and rapists, will slip through along with the many good people who wish to live in the greatest country on Earth. Full stop.
That doesn’t sound hateful, does it? Without defending Trump, one can at least attempt to be fair. And, while we’re at it, we in the media might try to avoid further undermining our credibility. When they know that we know what Trump really means, despite his obviously deteriorating facility with the King’s English, distrust in “fake news” becomes reflexive and, ultimately, disastrous. What good is served by the legitimate, fact-checked media if those most in need of reliable information are turned off?
Censoring the president of the United States, even by a nongovernmental entity enforcing its own rules of civility, is fraught with potential for collateral damage. Hate or nefarious purposes once revealed in daylight are banished to the darkness where they fester and become more foul. Suppressing someone’s thoughts, especially the president’s, leads to a suppression of public debate. As Syracuse University’s Roy S. Gutterman (and others before him) have put it, the answer to hate speech is more speech.
It isn’t the responsibility of social media companies to sanitize the village square, but does that mean they have no responsibility for content? Public opinion may be mixed, but pressures are mounting for companies to step up and clean up their communities. Advertisers, under the banner “Stop Hate for Profit,” have begun boycotting Facebook because of its refusal to block the president’s posts. Some companies have extended their boycott to other rivals, including Twitter.
Reddit went further than Twitch and banned the pro-Trump community or “subreddit” account — “The_Donald” — along with 2,000 other online communities in a “hate speech” crackdown. Chief executive Steve Huffman explained that users of the subreddit had been violating the company’s policies for years.
So, why take a hard stand now? Politics, of course. Also, George Floyd’s death while in police custody has led to a culture-wide awakening and a sense that America needs to clean up its act, not just concerning police brutality or systemic racism but also everyday conduct that, untamed, cements a general coarsening and disregard for the human community.
It’s about time, though I’d rather we eliminate foul language from the streets and airwaves than worry about potentially hurtful speech. What is speech but the expression of thoughts? And, how, exactly, should we purge people’s unacceptable thoughts?
Such is the quandary of a free society, and so my free thought is this: Let everybody talk, especially the president of the United States, so that we know exactly what they are thinking. Better that than to be unpleasantly surprised.