by Judith Curry
We need to allow all voices to be heard.
Like everyone else on the planet, I have been riveted by the events of the past week. And I have been suffering from a great deal of cognitive dissonance in interpreting these events – how to reconcile my staunch advocacy of freedom of speech and abhorrence of censorship, with my abhorrence of violence.
I was going to post on this on Sunday, then cancelled (do I really want to wrestle with this tar baby?). I then decided again to post Monday night, then cancelled this morning. This essay by Matt Nisbet that I just read has convinced me to post on this topic.
Election. The results (and ensuing challenges) of the Presidential election are at the root of what has happened. Were there irregularities in the voting process? It would be astonishing if there weren’t (based on the thousands of texts I’ve received to my phone, it appears that I am still a registered voter in Fulton County, GA). Were there some bad actors involved here? Wouldn’t surprise me. Is there anything here that would lead to overturning the result that Joe Biden won the election? It doesn’t seem that there is. This was not a close election, unlike the nail biter Bush vs Gore election. Further, there is indirect evidence that Trump lost in that Biden won the popular vote by large margin, and the down-ballot Republicans did quite well. Are people within their rights to ask for audits and to complain? Of course. But the process has played itself out, and the meeting of Electoral College effectively put an end to this. Do members of Congress have the right to raise issues about the electors at the Jan 6 Certification? Well, in 2017 apparently there were 11 Representatives that raised issues challenging Trump’s win. Joe Biden, who presided over this, knocked these challenges back since there hadn’t been any corresponding concerns raised by Senators. Do losers of elections continue to complain about an ‘unfair’ election? I certainly recall complaints from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi well into 2017 about illegitimate election, after Trump and the Republicans won in 2016. Stacey Abrams never conceded her loss in the Georgia gubernatorial election. Do U.S. election practices need improvement? They certainly do, in some states. But one of the safeguards in U.S. elections is that it is impossible to comprehensively rig what is essentially 50+ separate elections that are administered at the county level. Of course, in a close election rigging a few key counties can make a difference. But this election was not that close.
Violence. Many have argued that while Trump’s statements were reckless and wrong, his speech does not meet the definition of incitement under the U.S. criminal code and his statements would be considered protected speech by the Supreme Court. Here is the concern. My take on the incitement to violence can be illustrated by analogy with falsely crying ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater (the canonical example of speech that isn’t protected). Person X spends two months effectively talking about a theater that wasn’t safe, and could burn to the ground for a concert on a specific date that featured a rival. He then effectively tried to coerce the theater owner (analogy to Pence) into cancelling the concert. When this didn’t work, X organizes a rally to protest the concert, with an implicit wink and nod that fire would be ok. Further, X arranged for the expected theater security not to be present. Fire ensues. IMO, while not as explicit, this is in many ways equivalent to someone spontaneously crying “Fire.” But here is the problem with what Twitter did. They suspended Trump’s account permanently, “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” What role should the ‘precautionary principle’ play in terms of freedom of speech (in this instance, beyond Biden’s inauguration)? And why are the Antifa and BLM related twitter accounts allowed, which are more explicit about violence? So is this really about politics, and not ‘violence’?
Twitter. Twitter’s decision to suspend Trump, is legally speaking, fairly clear cut. The tweets that I found most objectionable were his insistence that Pence throw the election in his favor at the Jan 6 certification. This was immediately followed by #HangPence, which actually trended on twitter for quite awhile, and seem more directly related to inciting violence than anything else that Trump said on Twitter. I would be more sympathetic to an apparently difficult decision by Twitter to de-platform Trump, if it weren’t for their cavalier de-platforming of: Covid physicians or other ‘experts’ that advocated for HXQ or against lockdowns (topics for which there is legitimate debate), scientists and others who inject too much biology into discussions of ‘gender,’ anyone mentioning Hunter Biden’s financial ‘difficulties’, and so on – issues that don’t in any conceivable way relate to violence, other than in a political ‘woke’ sense, whereby violence is done unto me if anyone issues words that I disagree with or my feelings get hurt.
Parler. The ‘cancelled’ people then went and formed their own platform (they had been told to ‘build their own’), Parler, which was for proponents of free speech and didn’t censor anything. I was initially intrigued by the idea, signed up for an account. The main thing that I spotted is that Willie Soon dominates climate Parler – sort of the Michael Mann of Parler (but minus the insults). I subsequently forgot my password, and never bothered further. Parler has been effectively cancelled, by the Amazon cloud declining to host Parler. Building your own server cloud system is a non trivial undertaking. Apparently the owner of Parler has been unable to find another U.S. host for their site (I suspect they will end up going with server provider in eastern Europe). The host for Climate Etc. (wordpress.com) doesn’t seem to be de-platforming blogs (at least as far as I know).
Platform or publisher. There has been a debate going on for years as to whether social media should be regarded as a platform or a publisher (Section 230). Trump’s social media ban could very well create a host of problems for Big Tech and its social media platforms. They will be hit from both sides: Democrats angry at the role of social media in fomenting the challenge to Biden’s legitimacy as the President-elect; and Republicans angry at being censored. Removing content that they thought was inciting violence in one specific instance is one thing, but preventing Trump from sharing anything further (indefinitely) on Twitter is arguably an editorial decision, which would define them as a publisher, with a whole host of different rules to abide by. Personally, I don’t trust the tech titans to have fair rules and enforce them fairly. To me, this looks like an anti-trust issue. It is not a healthy situation for online discussion to take place only on a few platforms, and greater competition in the app and hosting space is needed. Some are calling for social media to be regarded as a utility.
Broader consequences for Twitter. Twitter’s stock is apparently tanking. Twitter, unique among social media platforms, is widely used internationally. This includes leaders of other countries, who had assumed that a world leader should be able to speak to their citizens unfettered by decisions made by someone in Silicon Valley. Some of these leaders say some very objectionable things on Twitter; thus far, few have been censored (and none to my knowledge de-platformed). The more Twitter deletes, the more there is implicit de facto approval of what is allowed to remain on the platform. Many national leaders from other countries are voicing concerns, including Angela Merkel. National level (or EU, Asia) versions of Twitter can be expected, diminishing the clientele and influence (and profitability) of Twitter.
You might be next. While many are gleeful over the de-platforming of Trump, others are concerned that they could deplatformed at some point. Such concerns have been raised internationally, but also within the U.S. by the ACLU and also by some on the left, including Bernie Sanders, who is concerned that left-wing groups could be banned in the future. I can only wonder and worry about the fate of climate ‘deniers’ in the public discourse.
The chain reaction. The de-platforming of Trump started with social media platforms. This was then extended to anything related to Trump by mobile OS providers, cloud hosts, podcast carriers and email providers. The Twitter ban is one thing. Its the fact that all of these services were able to act in concert to instantly cancel someone from the online sphere, including the U.S. President, is rather terrifying. But it gets worse.
Corporate cancelling. In addition to social media, this has provided the impetus for Trump’s preferred banks to stop lending him further funds, the PGA has cut ties with Trump’s golf course in New Jersey, Shopify has terminated stores affiliated with Trump, Stripe has stopped processing payments for the Trump campaign website. I’m sure there will be others. So where does this all lead? And how can a ‘cancelled’ person work around this, even a billionaire? Even for those people who detest Trump, surely they must be worried about whether this could happen to them?
Who is the greater threat to freedom and democracy? So who is the greater threat – the clowns who stormed the Capitol, or the technocratic elites and other corporations who are using the Trump situation as an opportunity to consolidate their cultural and political power? Others define all this in moral terms, which really relate to their personal political preferences; they are all in favor of this if their current enemies are the ones being thwarted/cancelled. A very dangerous situation.
Trump will be gone from the U.S. Presidency within days. His recent behavior has arguably earned a ‘Censure’ from the U.S. Congress. After the short-term catharsis of the big cancellation of Trump, the ability of Big Tech and corporations to ‘cancel’ somebody reflects a long-term danger to our society, much worse than whatever violence might be wrought by Antifa, Proud Boys, whoever. Tyranny, or radicalization across the internet? Hopefully this doesn’t need be either-or. Politically motivated and precautionary censorship is arguably the biggest source of potential tyranny. The control of speech by tech billionaires is a very dangerous place to be.
The giant scale of the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter has arguably transformed them into a public commons. Facebook and Twitter have enriched my life – Facebook allowing me to stay in contact with old friends and distant relatives, and Twitter to communicate with interesting people that I otherwise wouldn’t have even heard of.
Unless Twitter et al. develop objective rules and enforce them consistently and uniformly, the regulators and lawmakers will do this for them. While these information monopolies are free enterprise success stories, they have also amassed enormous power, as evidenced by the events of the past week.
The problems that have brought the U.S. to this point are numerous and complex. In the post-Trump era, hopefully we can focus on solutions, and bring the violent fringes under control.