Capitulating on free speech
Over the past couple of weeks, Donald Trump has found less and less use for his smartphone. I refer, of course, to how all major social media platforms have banned The Donald from posting on social media following the events on January 6th in Washington D.C. In fact, I understand Twitter has banned all accounts he somehow had access to, and for some weird reason, music streaming app Spotify has also suspended his account. Potentially due to horrible music tastes? Remains unclear.
This does not, of course, represent a breach on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the US government, because social media platforms are private entities and have every right to determine who gets to use their services. Also, just in case the far right is planning on making laws to stop private businesses from doing that, it will come at the cost of your own businesses no longer being allowed to turn away customers due to differences of lifestyles and beliefs. Tread carefully.
I do not have anything to add about the freedom of speech issue, because I believe that there are two types of people - the ones who get that what Twitter etc did is perfectly within the law, and the ones who are upset their hero can no longer post random strings of letters online for them to drool over. Neither side needs more explanation.
However, I do have something to say in regards to the social media platforms and the often positive reaction to their decision to ban Donald Trump. Facebook explicitly stated that they are concerned Mr. Trump has been using, and will continue to use, their platform to spread misinformation and incite violence. Apparently after all these years of existence, Facebook authorities have suddenly realized that no one should be allowed to spread rumors and advocate for hate crimes on their website. Twitter has a similar rationale for banning not just Trump’s personal account, but also his campaign team account which he tried posting from.
So, 2021 began with social media giants owning the responsibility they have to make sure that the tools they have created, are not used to incite, organize, and direct acts of anarchy. Twitter and Facebook also spent most of the last two months flagging every post by Trump as being potentially false. And many of us are losing our minds in admiration of how they are playing their role in upholding democracy and curbing the spread of propaganda.
Let us rewind to just a little over a decade ago. The United States just got their first ever non-white President. In the wake of Barack Obama becoming a frontrunner for the 2008 presidential elections, two common themes became prevalent on social media. One claimed Obama is a Muslim, something the former president actually had to deny. Even though in the perfect world, he should not have had to.
The other was what is known today as the birther movement. Started by a mediocre businessman and even worse reality tv star, Donald Trump. Trump kept tweeting how Obama was born in Kenya, and that he needs to show the world his birth certificate. The crux being of course that, if Obama was not born in US soil, he is not qualified to run for president.
Of course, no other presidential candidate has had to do this. No Bush, McCain, or Clinton has had to prove that they were not born in Ireland, or Germany, or Italy. Further, Trump presented no proof of his claims. As far as I recall, eventually Obama had to acquiesce to this demand and release his birth certificate online. Trump just blew it off as being fake, something that the world is now all too familiar with. Please note that some eight years later, Donald Trump did not even agree to release his financial statements, something every presidential candidate in living memory has done. So, Trump thinks Obama owes everyone an explanation as to his very birth, but Trump does not even have to tell us about his finances. We all know why he feels that way, and we all know he is not the only person who feels that way.
How is this relevant to 2021? Donald Trump had no evidence to substantiate his original claim, or his refusal to accept Obama’s response. However, he did manage to start off a chain reaction in the US political arena. Any and all detractors of Obama, left unable to find logical flaws in his proposed policies, fell back on the “he wasn’t even born here” rant. Further, it is this birther movement that elevated Trump the limelight enough that he was able to announce running for president. What followed is four years that have been great for wealthy Republicans and stand-up comedians, but terrible for the average American. It has been fatal to the 400,000 with the singular misfortune to have had to face a pandemic under the leadership of a man who, by his own admission, does not believe in science.
If all these social media giants had found their respect for moderation, their demands for substantiated claims, and their concern for curbing propaganda ten years earlier, all of this could have been avoided. Twitter, Facebook etc today want us to appreciate how they stood up to the President of the United States because he was inciting anarchy, and many are indeed applauding. I however, remain content to be the contrarian who remembers, that if they took a stand in time, that man would probably never have become president in the first place.
Hammad Ali is a PhD student and a lover of fountain pens