Social Media Giants Are Walking Into A Trap
In reacting to the D.C. Insurrection on January 6th, social media companies will restrict their own ability to maneuver in the future.
Since OSIRIS Brief 0.24.0 I have come in for some justified criticism for appearing overly supportive of censorship, by stating that deleting Donald Trump’s account “seems justified.” I still think it is important to recognize that Twitter has reasonable justifications in the short-term for what it did, even if we disagree with the policy decision. What is less justified, at least based on information currently available, is the carte blanche crackdown on Trump-adjacent thought, including the Parler app. By acting as they have, the tech giants of Silicon Valley may have laid a trap for themselves and then promptly walked into it.
The best course of action would have been to respond as narrowly as possible, but social media companies overreached a mandate. As a riot was unfolding in Washington, D.C., there was a strategic logic to turning off certain social media accounts, perhaps including the President’s account. Denying communications to an adversary is a time tested tactic and one used to counter insurgencies with some success. I saw it used when I was fighting in Iraq, for instance, and it sometimes even worked. Following the riot, there are legitimate reasons—including brand protection, liability concerns, and community integrity—to remove certain especially problematic accounts. Such a response would be narrowly tailored to specific circumstances. The narrowness would make the response easy to explain and to justify. That is not the response that we saw.
Social media companies and other tech giants have overreached their “mandate” by a lot. Facebook and Twitter have both permanently banned Pres. Trump. At the same time, Facebook and Twitter have gone on a rampage, banning accounts associated with various fringe groups. Google and Apple banned the Parler app from their app store. Amazon removed Parler from its web-hosting, and Okta terminated Parler’s service. Policies more remote from specific concerns will be harder to justify in the future and will make for choppy political waters in the near term.
Social media companies are making partisan political enemies. Social media were already in both Democratic and Republican political sights, though for different reasons. Social media companies’ new policies will probably exacerbate the political ire they already faced. Kicking Trump to the curb as Joe Biden becomes President may buy a little goodwill among Democrats but does not solve underlying complaints. Sen. Warren’s plans for economic redistribution, for example, or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s worries about worker treatment, do not disappear. At the same time, Republicans may now become implacably opposed to social media companies. Being excluded from the spoils of social media lifts most constraints Republicans have to not “break up” or “regulate” big tech companies.
Individuals concerned about free speech and proper processes are alarmed by social media companies. On the left and the right, cheers have given way to jeers as people realize that big tech just made a show of force even the President of the United States could not oppose. An unelected oligarchy does not totally control what we talk about, but it has a lot of influence and you don’t have to like Trump to worry about that. Kicking Trump off Twitter even moved world leaders like Angela Merkel and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador “AMLO” to express concern, and small wonder. If Twitter can kick around the US President, what hope does the President of Honduras have?
The case for “antitrust” action just became much stronger. Google and Facebook are already facing antitrust lawsuits, with other lawsuits waiting in the wings. The weakness of the antitrust arguments have been that Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. are competitors to one another. However, when all the big players line up and sing from the same sheet of music, that looks an awful lot like an old fashioned trust. The Sherman Antitrust Act was passed to bust up trusts. Some trusts were monopolistic companies. Other trusts were firms colluding with each other to control the market. We have witnessed what looks like collusion.
Tech giants have made it difficult for themselves to resist demands from international governments, like China or Russia. Principled arguments are only powerful if you stand on the principle. If your principle changes depending on who is in power, it’s not a principle, but an excuse. By justifying their moves against Trump and Parler as “defending stability and decency,” technology companies have validated the excuse for other governments to use. If hundreds of accounts can be removed or banned from a service because they are a threat to the US government, why shouldn’t Twitter, Facebook, etc. do the same to protect Russia’s government? If it is OK for Google/Apple/Amazon to prohibit an app because it is dangerous to American stability, why can’t China prohibit Google for Chinese stability?
Part of the reason for the ad hoc policies is that technology people don’t think all that deeply about politics and policy, instead just muddling through. Many Silicon Valley habitants are “culturally liberal,” which means they have knee-jerk support for left-leaning policies but are not well-steeped in or intellectually committed to left-leaning views. Paying scant attention to political thought and strategy may not be terrible in a hyper-politicized environment, but it can make one vulnerable to manipulation when well-thought-out logic would be better.
Muddling through may work out again, but I wouldn’t count on it. We are at a point where voters in the US and around the world are more tolerant of calls to regulate Big Tech than at any point in recent history. As the popular mood sours towards the chaos of the past year, the call for government intervention may become irresistible. The outcome of such impulses is not especially likely to improve the online environment, but the tech giants may have just disarmed themselves by acting too rashly. Although it is too late to think about the issue regarding the past, perhaps they’ll think about it now.
David Benson is a Professor of Strategy and National Security focusing on cyberstrategy and international relations. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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