Recently, President Donald Trump was perma-banned from Twitter and suspended from myriad other social media platforms. While many cite this as a win due to the violent tweets that culminated in the Jan. 6 insurrection, it comes with a steep risk.
Now, I’m not arguing for free speech absolutism, and the courts have already ruled there are limits on First Amendment rights. I’m also not arguing that neo-nazis shouldn’t be deplatformed.
What I am, is concerned. I’m rightfully concerned for the effects of expanding the precedent of Big Tech censorship to the most powerful person in the world on everyone else.
Terms like “Facebook Jail” and “Twitmo” already exist for the increasingly common experience of being banned or suspended from social media. There’s no accountability, and “appealing” often leads nowhere or to being forced to delete your content.
Again, sometimes deplatforming is good, as there are forms of speech that are unprotected and provoke great violence. However, the practice of deplatforming should be rarer than our Great Salt Lake, not a common concern.
If an unaccountable, privately held platform run by the whims of a multi-billionaire like Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg can freely determine what is acceptable discourse, free speech is threatened. And when so many of the “little people” use those platforms daily for common, personal and public communication, that threat affects us all.
Trump should have been deplatformed for inciting violence, but that decision should’ve been made by a democratically controlled and publicly accountable body rather than private CEOs. The steep slope of censorship is that we now have lived in a reality for a decade where billionaires and tech CEOs have the unfettered power to determine what is acceptable public discourse. It’s not like we can just build our own internet, and code our own Twitter or whatever.
The infrastructure behind both of those is expensive, in hardware and manpower. The internet requires literal tons of networking equipment and connections buried beneath our cities and our oceans, as well as orbiting above us in the form of satellites. When it comes to coding a new social media, not only do you need the manpower of skilled programming and design teams, you need investment and never-ending server capacity growth.
Furthermore, according to the Congressional Research Service, the government buoyed social media networks with ad spends totalling $985 million in 2010 alone, and internet service providers are often given government-funded grants and technical assistance in their projects (according to the Fiber Broadband Association)
Think about other utilities, such as water, sewer, gas and power. These weren’t considered “critical” until after their inception. Yet, we couldn’t live without them in today’s world. The internet and social media are the same. Kids need them for school and recreation, adults need them for work and recreation.
The tech behind “Big Tech” and our digital world was made possible through publicly funded research at agencies like NASA and DARPA. In a world where social media is critical communications infrastructure, shouldn’t it be mandated to preserve the First Amendment, or shouldn’t we at least have a public option that is publicly accountable and mandated to preserve our rights?
Phelan Acheson is a political independent, activist and organizer. He plans on running against Rep. Chris Stewart in 2022. You can learn more about him here: phelan4congress.com