By Patrick McAuliffe
Does anyone really read the Terms and Conditions that accompany setting up a new social media account? For all anyone may know, Facebook or Twitter could ban one’s account for any reason, at any time. Many conservatives believe that their pages and accounts disproportionately suffer from bias on behalf of large social media companies, although proving this with empirical data on which accounts and pages are removed is difficult when a private company, eager to withhold this information, does not allow the collection of such data. Ironically, many on the political right traditionally believe that private businesses have the right to operate their businesses as they see fit, such as in the June 2018 Supreme Court case about the Christian baker nearly forced to bake a cake for a homosexual wedding. The removal of President Trump from nearly all mainstream social media platforms and online outlets following the events of January 6th’s Capitol riot triggered something in many people’s intuitions, mine included, about social media companies’ role in regulating public discourse.
Despite my reservations about Trump’s platform and rhetoric, it is undeniable that much of today’s media is stacked against him. His nationalistic speeches frightened many political pundits, and the comparisons to the rise of Nazi Germany knew no limit. For all of the tough talk, his administration was a mixed bag of policy, from regulating bump stocks to lowering the price of insulin to continuing President Obama’s deportation and border detention policies, among many other policies that he enacted. In the eyes of this humble writer, both traditional and social media outlets were more frightened by what he said than by what he did.
However, what Trump said eventually did get him into trouble. After weeks of disputing the 2020 election results, Trump made a speech on the National Mall at a “Save America” rally that was followed by the march on the Capitol building. A BBC News analysis of key quotes from his speech, including “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore” and “Peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard” proved, in my mind, inconclusive in determining whether the President directly encouraged the directionless violence that followed his speech. His words led to the second impeachment of his tenure as President, which he was, again, acquitted of in the Senate. Regardless, the events of that day were cataclysmic for his influence in the public forum.
For various lengths of time, ranging from temporarily to the end of his presidential term to permanently, various social media sites removed all of Trump’s accounts on their platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitch, and Shopify, among others. They cited the events of January 6th and threats of future incitement of violence as their reasoning behind the bans. Based on what was actually said, however, it seems that the only thing Trump is guilty of in this entire situation is refusing to acknowledge the results of the election. His supporters took it upon themselves to choose a more violent route in expressing their anger. Now that the dust is settled, the question becomes “Who’s next to receive the banhammer on all mainstream social media fronts?”
Once such a nearly monopolistic ban on a user has been put into effect, with some people vehemently cheering it on, the precedent has now been set for these companies to do the same to others. It becomes difficult to argue that people removed from “mainstream” social media sites should merely relocate elsewhere, especially in the case of Apple, Google, and Android removing Parler, the lesser-known alternative to Twitter, from their app stores. When every large company seems to stack the deck against a person, group, or alternative platform, can the market of social media be truly free?
These platforms have become such an integral part of how humans communicate in modern times, and to see actors being actively shut out of them is akin to being ostracized from nearly all society. My answer to this problem is not to immediately jump to government action, but for people from all walks of life to seriously consider just how much power that large social media platforms have over the public discourse. Be wary of the stances that these companies take and the people that they discourage or outright ban from participating in them. The Internet is the public bazaar of the world, and when a few large companies act as its gatekeepers, alarm bells should be sounding in the mind of anyone that values true freedom. Raise those alarm bells to anyone that will listen, even if it starts with something as simple as thoroughly reading a platform’s Terms and Conditions.