It only took four-plus years of incendiary tweets, racist statements and violent threats, but on January 8, Twitter finally decided to permanently ban the US president’s account with just days left of his term – and with it, his primary platform for speaking to his devotees.
In addition, Google, Amazon and Apple have cracked down on Parler, a possible plan B social media platform for the president and his followers. Reddit, Discord, Shopify, TikTok and Snapchat have also imposed restrictions.
Donald Trump Jr., one of the president’s sons, took to the same platform that his father had been banned from to declare that free speech in the country “died with big tech”. Later, in a nine-minute-long rant on Facebook, he said, “It’s a sad day when big tech has more power than big government.” That’s an idea that has found support on both sides of the political divide, and holds a kernel of truth.
Under increasing pressure and after a temporary suspension of his Twitter account, the president posted a video of a speech calling for a smooth transition of power and condemning the violence in the Capitol that took place on January 6. The simple act of tech companies deplatforming Trump has highlighted not just how much power they wielded over one of the most powerful men in the world, but more generally their sway over public discourse: who gets to speak and be heard.
Yet for so long, tech giants have refused to play god, saying that it is not their responsibility to be moral arbiters online.
Sweetening up Uncle Joe
In a blog post, Twitter explained its reasoning for acting now: Trump’s declaration that he would not attend Biden’s inauguration could be interpreted by his followers as incitement to violence at said ceremony. Commentators have found this explanation difficult to believe, with a number of previous Trump tweets more overtly violent than this one. Kevin Roose said in the New York Times that tech companies were acting “as if ‘don’t incite an insurrectionist mob’ had been in the community guidelines all along”.
By cracking down on Trump, tech companies are finally doing what many politicians on the left had been clamouring for them to do for years. Many commentators think that the sudden switch in tactics is a preparatory step to sweeten up an incoming Joe Biden administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress.
Jennifer Palmieri, a political adviser and former White House communications director for the Obama administration, remarked dryly on Twitter: “It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them.”
It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destructive behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them.
— Jennifer Palmieri (@jmpalmieri) January 7, 2021
Democrats are bad for tech – or at least, that’s the message from Wall Street. Shares in Apple, Facebook, Alphabet (Google), Amazon and Microsoft all fell after the Georgia Senate race was won by Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock and it looked like control of the Senate would be in the Democrats’ hands.
Still, criticism of the tech sector is a bipartisan issue and perhaps one of the few topics where Democratic and Republican lawmakers both agree on tighter regulation. However, the GOP has led a fight against Big Tech primarily because of what they see as the companies kowtowing to cancel culture, a pervasive liberal bias and censorship of conservative voices. Democrats have other priorities, among them a lack of competition.
US lawmakers have already begun major lawsuits against tech companies, including, in December, an antitrust process against Facebook. They argue that the hydra of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook should be broken up and regulated. A Democrat-run Congress is likely to put heavy focus on data privacy, transparency of algorithms, competition and content moderation in the sector.
Silicon Valley is still waiting to see what kind of direction Biden is going to take with tech policy. He has been critical of Big Tech in the past, particularly for its role in allowing the proliferation of misinformation and failing to crack down on Russian interference.
Tech companies’ liability for content
Like Trump, Biden has spoken before about revoking Section 230, a part of the Communications Decency Act that ensures that tech companies aren’t liable for the content posted on their sites. Trump issued an executive order taking aim at Section 230 in May last year, after Twitter first took the then-unprecedented step of masking a tweet from the president and accompanying it with a warning about glorifying violence. This week, the executive order was dropped by the federal government, who said that there wouldn’t be time to resolve it before the end of Trump’s presidency. But the Biden administration could put it back on the reform agenda – although whether a change in the law would garner a large enough consensus in Congress is a different matter.
In late October, the US Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google. Biden is expected to pursue the same investigations that his predecessor started. He recently appointed Merrick Garland, an expert on antitrust law, to be US Attorney General.
Biden in bed with Silicon Valley?
The Biden administration has already been criticised for bed-hopping with the tech sector, although to a lesser extent than Barack Obama’s administration before him. In December, Reuters reported on Big Tech’s “stealth push” to get its allies into roles in the Biden administration, from wealthy tech donors becoming staff to senior executives trying to take advantage of ties to the transition team.
It’s likely, though, that Biden will be tougher on tech companies than Obama was, in large part because the Democratic party has shifted more to the left on tech issues.