Twitter’s permanent suspension of former United States president Donald Trump’s account on January 8 was an anti-climactic conclusion to a presidency that ultimately finished with a whimper rather than a bang.
But the move by the social media giant demonstrates why we cannot leave decisions about the right to be heard in the hands of giant corporations.
Nobody was shedding tears about Trump’s removal from Twitter given how he used it to wage his unrelenting campaigns against women, Muslims, immigrants and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trump used his Twitter account to build his base; he emboldened the far right and incite the attempted coup on January 6. Trump used Twitter to spew hate and incited violence; it served as a powerful tool to advance his right-wing populist agenda. Seen this way, a Voltaire-esque defence of, or idealisation of, free speech ignores the material harm that Trump’s use of social media caused.
The Twitter ban may have temporarily undercut Trump’s momentum but it did not extinguish it.
Predictably, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that Twitter’s right as a private company to ban Trump had to be respected. He shares the neoliberal conception of society, which includes the idea that corporations, such as Twitter, simply offer the public a service.
Emphasising the arbitrary difference between the public and private domains only empowers corporations.
Those who assert that Twitter, as a private entity, is not subject to the free speech requirements of the First Amendment, and is thus free to set its own policies, end up privileging the “rights” of private corporations.
Some on the left argue that such suspensions must be supported to advance the struggle. Superficially, this could be appealing.
But there is something deeply troubling about a multinational corporation being able to determine who can and who cannot participate on digital platforms.
Twitter, like the other social media platforms, has become an indispensable part of communication today, particularly during the pandemic.
The ability of social media corporations to silence voices is the exact opposite of their supposed brief: to promote online communication untroubled by the traditional media gatekeepers.
The timing of Trump’s Twitter suspension raises other questions, too.
Why, given countless instances during the past four years of Trump persistently inciting violence, for example, backing white supremacist rallies and escalating tensions with Iran following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, did Twitter only decide to close his account after the assault on the Capitol?
This suggests a grossly ad hoc approach by Twitter. Ultimately, the corporation made a political decision demanded by the capitalist class.
The ban itself was imposed by an unknown employee, and there has been very little information about what process, if any, was applied or if there is any possibility of an appeal.
Trump continues to wield a huge platform due to his power and wealth. Making censorship of one’s political rivals an acceptable course of action is a dangerous approach, and one the left will never win.
In his book Trigger Warnings, Jeff Sparrow cautions against relying on censorious measures, arguing that they cause unintended harm.
Without a mass response to Trump’s politics, Sparrow writes, corporations such as Twitter can be seen as the social media wing of liberalism — another arm of “sensible” politics. Twitter’s Trump ban blurred censorship and safety, which adds to the confusion among sections of the left.
Supporting Twitter’s decision plays into the conservatives’ culture war. It lends credibility to the establishment mantra that “free” speech is under attack when the left criticises sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination.
Appealing to big tech to help in the fight against the right is counter-productive. Measures, such as censorship, end up helping the establishment.
Ultimately, it is only through mass mobilisation that the far right can be effectively challenged — online and on the streets.
Right now, with the simplest of changes to an algorithm, or the click of a button, critical progressive voices are being silenced. We see this with Telesur’s numerous suspensions, the blocking of Palestinian activists online, as well as the curtailment of the reach of Green Left.
Neither glorifying the concept of free speech in isolation, nor cheering censorship by multinational corporations will advance the aims of progressives.
We need to broaden the conversation about the de-monopolisation and socialisation of social media companies. The only guarantee of a pluralistic and democratic media is genuine accountability and democratic control.