Michelle Goldberg: The scary power of the companies that finally shut Trump up

Tech companies used their power wisely. But they shouldn’t have that much power.

In the days after Donald Trump whipped up a mob to overrun the U.S. Capitol in a desperate attempt to stop the certification of his defeat, many conservatives have voiced their outrage over the true victims of the failed putsch.

“I’ve lost 50k-plus followers this week,” an indignant Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter on Saturday, after the platform banned Trump and purged accounts that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory. Complaining of “radical left” censorship, Sanders, Trump’s former press secretary, wrote, “This is not China, this is United States of America, and we are a free country.”

In fact, Twitter and Facebook’s ejection of Trump is pretty much the opposite of what happens in China; it would be inconceivable for the Chinese social media giant Weibo to block President Xi Jinping. Trump’s social media exile represents, in some ways, a libertarian dream of a wholly privatized public sphere, in which corporations, not government, get to define the bounds of permissible speech.

As a non-libertarian, however, I find myself both agreeing with how technology giants have used their power in this case, and disturbed by just how awesome their power is. Trump deserved to be deplatformed. Parler, a social network favored by Trumpists that teemed with threats against the president’s enemies, deserved to be kicked off Amazon’s web-hosting service. But it’s dangerous to have a handful of callow young tech titans in charge of who has a megaphone and who does not.

In banning Trump, the big social media companies simply started treating him like everyone else. Lots of people, including prominent Trump supporters like Alex Jones, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, have been ousted from Facebook, Twitter or both for inciting violence, threatening journalists and spreading hatred. Trump, who has done all of those things, had until this past week been given special privileges as president.

There’s no First Amendment problem with taking these privileges away; Americans don’t have a constitutional right to have their speech disseminated by private companies. On the contrary, the First Amendment gives people and companies alike the freedom not to associate with speech they abhor.

There’s a debate about how far this freedom should go. Liberals, myself included, generally believe that freedom of association shouldn’t trump civil rights law, which is why bakeries shouldn’t be allowed to deny wedding cakes to gay couples. But it seems obvious enough that the Constitution doesn’t compel either individuals or businesses to amplify seditious political propaganda.

Still, the ability of tech companies, acting in loose coordination, to mostly shut up the world’s loudest man is astonishing, and shows the limits of analogies to traditional publishers. It’s true that Trump can, any time he wants, hold a press conference or call into Fox News. But stripping him of access to social media tools available to most other people on Earth has diminished him in a way that both impeachment and electoral defeat so far have not.

Social media bans matter because they work. You can see it with villains as diverse as ISIS, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones. “Their ability to drive the conversation, reach wider audiences for recruitment, and, perhaps most importantly to a lot of these conflict entrepreneurs, to monetize it, is irreparably harmed,” said Peter W. Singer, co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.”

It’s great that Trump’s poisonous presence has been curtailed. Private companies have shown themselves able to act far more nimbly than our government, imposing consequences on a would-be tyrant who has until now enjoyed a corrosive degree of impunity. But in doing so, these companies have also shown a power that goes beyond that of many nation-states, one they apply capriciously and without democratic accountability. As The Verge noted, it’s hard to make sense of a system that leads to the trolly left-wing podcast “Red Scare” being suspended from Twitter, but not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So it’s not surprising that serious people including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny find the Trump bans disturbing. “This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world,” Navalny wrote on Twitter. “In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘This is just common practice; even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”

But the answer isn’t to give Trump his beloved account back. Navalny pointed out that Trump’s ban seems arbitrary because so many other bad actors, including autocrats, COVID deniers and troll factories, still have access to the service. He called for platforms to create a more transparent process, appointing committees whose decisions could be appealed. That would be a start.

In the long term, tech monopolies need to be broken up, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed. Singer described the tech barons who finally took action against Trump after enabling him for years as “rulers of a kingdom that abdicated their responsibility for a long time.” This time, with Trump, they ruled judiciously. But they shouldn’t rule over as much as they do.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.