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Big Tech: With great power comes no accountability

  • 22 Jan 2021

By dropping the hammer on Trump and deplatforming a number of pro-Trump accounts to ostensibly defend democracy, is Big Tech the greater threat to free speech and democratic discourse?

This combination of photos, clockwise, from upper left: a Google sign, the Twitter app, YouTube TV logo and the Facebook app. ( AP )

In the wake of the assault on the US capitol on January 6, Twitter and Facebook swiftly acted to permanently suspend Donald Trump’s personal account. Google and Apple followed shortly and banned Parler, the conservative social media platform that was a haven for the far-right as well as conspiracy theorists, from their app stores. Less than a week later, Amazon withdrew the platform’s web hosting services.

That the Big Tech heavyweights coalesced at a moment of unprecedented political turmoil to ‘deplatform’ problematic voices in the Trumpian ecosystem came to the delight of many who felt social media platforms had long given free rein to fringe views and disinformation vendors.

By doing so, however, a larger set of questions come to the fore.

Should Americans be worried that their free speech rights can be snuffed out under the guise of combating extremism? Who gets to be the arbiter of what is good speech and what isn’t? And more importantly, how did Big Tech become private gatekeepers of the public commons?

How effective is de-platforming?

De-platforming, which aims to restrict the ability of individuals to communicate with each other in public, is a subject that raises profound ethical and legal questions. But for the most part it is being discussed in the context of whether it can be an effective strategy to reduce hate speech and calls for violence on social media.

A 2015 Brookings Institution report found that even when Islamist extremists managed to log back onto Twitter using different handles, they struggled to retain their visibility and previous followers. But some experts claim that de-platforming can result in the migrated community showing signs of becoming more radicalised over time. For a small group of die-hards, removal only bolsters the same feelings of isolation and outrage that led to radicalisation in the first place.

There is also an argument to be made that de-platforming risks driving people into the deeper recesses of the internet, whereas before they were easier targets for intelligence and security agencies to surveil – similar to how Daesh (ISIS) accounts were tracked on social media.

Perhaps, as the saying goes, sunlight is the best form of disinfectant.

Slippery slope of tech censorship

The strategic efficacy of de-platforming aside, the fact that big corporations can possess the power to decide who can and can’t have a voice online is disquieting – not just in the US, but around the world. Facebook skirted a ban on ruling BJP lawmakers in India even after they had broken rules on hate speech. It has also complied with requests from the Vietnamese government to delete dissident accounts.

The way that the Russian and Chinese governments demonise, gag and imprison their own political opposition and dissidents is often reprimanded by Washington through the prism of human rights, invariably reinforcing the idea of American exceptionalism; its model of democracy to be envied and imported worldwide, where free speech and political dissent flourishes and considered indelibly American.

It is somewhat ironic then that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Putin’s Russia, when hearing of Trump’s social media ban, thought it was a bridge too far. “In my opinion, the decision was based on emotions and political preferences,” Navalny wrote in a twitter thread.

“Of course, Twitter is a private company, but we have seen many examples in Russia and China of such private companies becoming the state’s best friends and enablers when it comes to censorship.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel too found the move and its implications for free speech of concern.

That these tech companies are private companies, and are not bound to adhere to free speech rights is true on one hand. But on the other, these platforms have become the primary publishers of news and present the façade of a public domain even though they are not held accountable by any democratic mechanisms.

Put bluntly, at a time when public spaces to gather and debate have been under attack by neoliberalism and the drive to privatise the commons, Facebook and Twitter have consolidated their monopolistic power to provide billions of users with the only available outlets for public expression. That a few for-profit entities have such power over global speech and politics has brought us that much closer to an Orwellian nightmare.

The idea that these companies can now be expunged from scrutiny for their roles in enabling conspiracy theories to bubble up into real-world violence is troubling to say the least; whose algorithms and filter bubbles reinforced ideological rigidity and fanned the flames of discord, making them complicit – not immune from responsibility.

As Jonathan Tobin writes in Newsweek: “the response to the riot has enabled Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the arbiters of what may or may not be said in the nation’s virtual public square in a way that any would-be American dictator would envy.”

It’s not like these companies were ever principally devoted to preserving democracy in any way either. They instead swim with the tide of public opinion, cynically maneuvering whenever their bottom line is at stake.

Yael Eisenstat, a former Global Head of Elections Integrity Operations for political advertising at Facebook, puts it succinctly: “It is hard to view this decision, and the timing, as anything other than trying to cozy up to power, as opposed to some form of responsible stewardship of our democracy”.

Meanwhile, journalist Glenn Greenwald notes the comparisons between the overreactions to Capitol Hill and 9/11 and how attacks on civil liberties were justified in their aftermath.

The growing chorus of demands across the spectrum from liberal politicians to celebrities that Silicon Valley act to stop enabling Trump and his cohorts could spell murky waters for what lies ahead. Does one really inhabit a democracy if those with enough cultural capital and institutional influence can pressure platforms to bend towards wherever public opinion is swaying and, in the process, quash unpopular political expression?

Take Michelle Obama, who said Trump supporters are not only being shamed by connection to the actions of a mob, but essentially as accessories to an insurrection. If Trump’s electoral fraud nonsense and those who acted upon his insurrectionary rhetoric are deserving of the digital axe, does that mean over 70 million Trump voters are guilty by proxy as well?

If all Trump supporters are a pariah to democracy and warrant their avatars being eternally scrubbed from cyberspace, how do Americans plan to share the same country with millions of disillusioned, so-called seditionists in the real world? If that’s the divisive lens through which US political discourse takes shape under the Biden years, then civil war might not just be hyperbole anymore but a worrying reality in the post-Trump era.

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