Kelly Jane Torrance
Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday ushers in a new era of Democratic control of the federal government, with the party commanding the executive and both legislative branches. Biden rightly made unity a central part of his campaign platform, but unity is premised on mutual respect, open discourse and listening to other perspectives so that all citizens — including those on the right, like me — can trust that the broader society cares about them and that whoever leads the system represents everyone.
Which is part of why the early signs about how the divided pieces of our society are going to interact are so troubling — essentially, they very well might not interact at all. Shortly before Inauguration Day, tech giants silenced certain speech on the right by refusing to host it on their apps and servers. Deplatforming conservatives isn't going to result in unity. Indeed, it will stoke resentment and make millions of Americans feel the elites dismiss, even disparage, their struggles or opinions — exactly what helped lead to President Donald Trump's election in the first place.
Private companies have every right to engage in such actions, but that doesn't mean they should. It's unwise — for the country and for the sort of conversation these companies claim they want to enable — for tech giants to suppress speech. They are so pervasively used, and the steps they took to deplatform the right were so comprehensive that their actions have the effect of limiting speech for a broad segment of the country.
While much of America cheered when Twitter announced, after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, that it was permanently barring Trump from his favorite social media platform, some sounded a cautious note: "This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same."
Those are wise words, and you might be surprised to learn who wrote them: the man who booted Trump, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. He expressed reservations about not just his own decision but also what followed: Twitter's ban touched off a wave of Big Tech activity that seemed aimed at silencing conservatives, with Google and Apple ejecting Parler, a social media platform popular with some segments of the right, from their app stores and Amazon removing Parler from its web servers, effectively shutting it down. Twitter suspended or removed thousands of other accounts, and Facebook and Instagram announced that Trump wouldn't be able to use them until at least after Biden's inauguration.
Certainly, people who use online platforms to organize real-world violence should be reported to the authorities. But tech companies have been selective in applying their new standards, suggesting that they're aimed less at public safety and more at unfavored political speech. Indeed, it's not hard to demonstrate how hypocritical Twitter and Facebook have been in banning Trump.
Though Twitter said it was prohibiting Trump from tweeting "due to the risk of further incitement of violence," the account of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei remains active despite years of his promoting genocide against Jews. "The Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed," he tweeted in May. "We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime."
The Israeli government asked Twitter to remove such posts; the company refused, saying, "World leaders use Twitter to engage in discourse with each other, as well as their constituents" — pretty rich, as Tehran's dictatorship doesn't let its "constituents" even use Twitter.
Meanwhile, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg recently maintained that the company's "policies are applied to everyone." But the Rohingya would dispute that. The Myanmar military used Facebook to incite the ethnic cleansing of the mostly Muslim minority group. A 2018 Facebook-commissioned report found that in Myanmar, the company wasn't "doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence."
Closer to home, Americans who search Twitter for #AssassinateTrump will find countless tweets calling for violence, some recent, some old — and Twitter hasn't banned those accounts. I could list many more examples.
Yet while these outrageous instances of hate speech and incitement go unchecked, the tech companies' crackdown has widened to include Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, actor-commentator Mindy Robinson, the #WalkAway campaign, which encourages Democrats to leave the party, even the anti-woke left-wing podcast "Red Scare."It's hard not to see this as simply suppression of dissent.
Many commentators have indicated that it's not just the rioters they seek to deplatform, either — it seems that anyone with whom they disagree, especially the more than 74 million people who voted for Trump, can be fair game. Even though it's not fair, of course, to tar millions with the actions of a few. (A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 5 percent of Americans consider the Capitol rioters "patriots.")
"We have to turn down the capability of these conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences," former Facebook insider Alex Stamos told CNN. "There are people on YouTube, for example, that have a larger audience than daytime CNN." (Heaven forbid!) CNN's Alisyn Camerota herself wrote of "warped" Trump supporters: "It's time to turn off their microphones."
While these decisions are all being made by private corporations, they can't be divorced from the wider political climate and the balance of government power. When Republicans held the Senate, legislative consequences might have followed had tech companies done what they're doing now, such as the end of Section 230, which provides websites with protection against liability for third-party content.
In fact, the clampdown started right after Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats, giving them control of the chamber. Meanwhile, Biden's team has ties to all five companies that have cracked down, with more than a dozen transition or government picks having worked at one. You can start to see why many conservatives feel it might have been a public-private partnership.
There are wrongheaded and dangerous ideas out there, of course. But let's bring them into the light, where we can address them, rather than push them underground. Forcing people to defend their opinions is more likely to get them to discard flawed ones than is forcing them into a ghetto populated only by the like-minded.
And there's another pressing reason to stop suppressing speech: It makes it easier to identify real evildoers. More than 100 people have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riot, and many were identified because they posted pictures of themselves taking part or were seen on video shared by others. When it appeared that Parler was about to shut down, investigators quickly sought to grab its data, hoping to identify more people who organized and participated in the attack.
Dorsey understands these arguments for free expression. In his 13-tweet thread about banning Trump, he said the actions Twitter has taken "divide us."
"They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning," he said. "And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation."
Well said, sir. But you led the charge toward speech suppression. How about now leading one against it? The United States is starting a new chapter with Biden's inauguration — let's ensure that it honors the long-held American values of free and open discussions that include all of us.