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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Why Big Tech’s purge of President Trump will only make everything worse

Political polarization and hyperpartisanship are tearing America apart. Big Tech’s purge of President Trump and other right-wing voices will only make this problem worse.

YouTube is the latest tech giant to ban or suspend the president. On Wednesday, it announced the removal of new content from Trump’s account, which has more than 2 million subscribers. The company also explained that it will be locking comments on Trump’s videos, suspending the president for at least seven days, and issuing him a warning for “inciting violence.”

This comes after Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even smaller niche services like Pinterest have all banned the president. For justification, they have all cited Trump’s behavior falsely claiming the November presidential election was stolen and encouraging supporters to gather in the protest that eventually turned into a violent riot and attack on the Capitol.

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To be clear, these companies are all within their legal rights to ban political figures, even the president, from their platforms. They are private entities and not bound by the First Amendment, which only applies to the government.

Yet there’s a big difference between can and should. And far from stopping the spread of misinformation or preventing violence, Big Tech’s sweeping crackdown on political digital speech will only exacerbate the division of our discourse that has caused so many of our problems.

Academic research shows that when people gather in echo chambers, they quickly grow more extreme and radical. Banning Trump will not change the fact that he is the defining political leader for tens of millions of people. They will follow him to the fringes of the internet or niche right-wing media outlets such as One America News. All this mass deplatforming will do is segregate a significant portion of the Right, the very ones who need to be brought back toward the center, into fringe digital echo chambers, where they will quickly grow more radical.

When Trump makes his arguments on Twitter, voices from across the political spectrum can challenge or fact-check him. (Twitter can even add fact checks or information labels to his content). In whatever forums fill the vacuum after his removal from the mainstream digital discourse, there will be no such moderating or restraining impulses.

This is a recipe for more disasters like the Capitol attack, not fewer.

After all, fringe voters are drawn to far-right candidates and conspiracies like QAnon in part because they feel marginalized and disdained by mainstream culture — they feel that the elites view them as “deplorables,” in Hillary Clinton’s famous phrasing. The tech industry declaring the politician who must closely embody its worldview unfit for public discourse only further fuels the narrative of victimization that pushes people to the fringe.

On the flip side, liberals will only become further removed from what their countrymen actually think. Polling shows that Democrats severely overestimate the extremity of Republicans’ beliefs. Why? In large part, because they do not actually directly engage with them but only see them through distorted media caricatures and echo-chamber depictions.

Banning Trump will only make this distortion, which is gravely toxic for our body politic, much worse.

Critics argue that no one, not even the president, should be allowed on social media if they are going to “incite violence.” This objection fails for multiple reasons.

For one, as many legal scholars have explained, Trump’s speech regarding the Capitol attacks, while grossly irresponsible, almost certainly does not reach the level of “incitement” as defined by First Amendment law. Critics who bandy this term about mislead more than they inform.

Even if one grants this argument, it is only a justification for removing or deleting individual posts that engage in this behavior — not perma-banning one of the single most prominent figures in politics from the digital public square.

Moreover, this censorship campaign deals a serious blow to the cultural value of open discourse and exchange of ideas that originally defined social media companies’ operating ethos and gave vibrancy to their platforms. This is why even the liberal American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out with concerns about Trump’s purge.

“We understand the desire to permanently suspend [Trump] now, but it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier,” the ACLU said in a statement. “President Trump can turn to his press team or Fox News to communicate with the public, but others — like the many Black, Brown, and LGBTQ activists who have been censored by social media companies — will not have that luxury.”

If Big Tech can ban our most powerful political figures at will, it can most certainly silence you next.

All of this censorship only invites new regulations that would lead to dysfunction or even destruction of social media as we know it. There is already bipartisan support for anti-tech policy proposals, such as eliminating the Section 230 liability shield that allows social media platforms to exist.

This foolish regulatory proposal would mean that social media platforms have to screen every single piece of content posted as they could potentially be sued for anything. This would almost certainly lead to massive queues and delays for posts and vast amounts of content being blocked for potential legal concerns.

In short order, social media as we know it would cease to exist, or at least become a shadow of itself. Big Tech’s decision to ban Trump only fuels the momentum for this type of regulatory backlash and thus its own demise — which would be a detriment to the hundreds of millions of people who rely on its services.

As worrying as this display of concentrated power may be, Big Tech does have the legal right to remove voices such as Trump’s from the major digital platforms, where so much of modern political discourse occurs. But the consequences of these actions are countless. From fueling echo chamber-driven polarization to inviting regulatory disaster, social media companies are making an unmitigated mistake.

Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is a Washington Examiner contributor and host of the Breaking Boundaries podcast.



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