Give the American Civil Liberties Union at least some credit for grasping the slipper slopes here, even if they get tangled up on expressing their dangers. Oh, the ACLU understands why Twitter banned Donald Trump and hundreds or thousands of his followers, and they even sympathize with it. But they warn that the precedent of having megaplatforms decide who can enter the political debate — and even whether a president can do so — will have some very uncomfortable ramifications for lesser mortals for whom the First Amendment was written.
The New York Times’ Eric Lipton notices that the ACLU seems to be having difficulty with their argument, however:
ACLU struggling here on this one….this is American Civil Liberties Union after all. pic.twitter.com/mWFOWJPwon
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) January 9, 2021
So what exactly is the ACLU arguing here? Should Twitter ban Trump in solidarity with the activists that the ACLU prefers? Or should they restore access to Trump and his banned supporters and stop censoring altogether?
The Intercept’s Ryan Grim isn’t quite clear on what the argument here is, either. Grim wonders why social-media platforms and the ACLU can’t just be consistent, and why speech needs to get restricted in the first place:
Another idea would be to prosecute people when they commit crimes. Could try that first, maybe.
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) January 9, 2021
There are tons of conservatives and MAGA pundits warning about corporate America limiting political speech and activism, which proves that politics is more of a donut than a spectrum. Of course, they have a vested interest in pushing back on Twitter’s bans, especially MAGA-land, which needs social media like everyone else needs oxygen. After Wednesday, their arguments are probably too self-serving to have much impact.
More notable, however, are the liberal and progressive voices worrying about the prophetic nature of prior warnings that social-media platforms would act in precisely this manner based on their political leanings and goals. In addition to Grim, Politico founding editor John F. Harris asks this morning whether Twitter really grasps the choice they are making:
In strictly political terms, it could well give buoyancy to Trump and his supporters — a new cause for the grievance that fuels them. The moves comes at precisely the moment that his movement looked like it had been fatally punctured, due to the cumulative effects of Trump losing the 2020 presidential election, Democrats winning the Senate in Georgia special elections and even once-loyal Trump Republicans expressing disgust with his culpability in Wednesday’s insurrection. …
If there is any unifying thread of the conservative movement from Nixon to Rush Limbaugh to Matt Drudge to Newt Gingrich to Trump, it is its resentment of the establishment news media and determination to make its filters obsolete.
More recently, the left has offered its own variation on the same theme — building a movement by both denouncing the alleged timidity and conformist spirit of establishment media and exploiting the digital revolution to build its own communications channels. …
Another paradox: The extreme democratizing of discourse represented by Twitter has also been marked by the very concentration of power in social media that existed in Agnew’s time. Another paradox: The extreme democratizing of discourse represented by Twitter has also been marked by the very concentration of power in social media that existed in Agnew’s time. Who the hell elected Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg?
Indeed. It’s an attempt to reassert top-down control over debate by curtailing access to other points of view, a sort of revanchist return to the 1970s media structure where the editors choose whose letters get to appear in print and what news is worthy of reporting. Only this time, the elites are the Big Tech media giants rather than the Big Three broadcasting giants and the local monopoly newspaper. That model is the antithesis of their business models, however, which only succeed by attracting enough customers to get a far-flung distribution of input — and where the consumers can talk with each other rather than consume passively. That’s the difference between now and the 1970s model: active rather than passive consumption.
And let’s not forget their track record as gatekeepers either:
Would be less concerned with Trump’s twitter ban if twitter didn’t also block an accurate news story from the New York Post two months ago.
— Stephen L. Miller (@redsteeze) January 9, 2021
That’s why the 1970s passive-consumer model collapsed when the Internet made it obsolete. Social media platforms are based on the exact opposite model. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg apparently want to put that genie back in the bottle, and it’s simply not going to work out well for anyone.
Grim has the correct approach. Let people talk and debate, and stick to enforcement against actual crimes. It’s better to have this out in the open, even if demagogues can sometimes take advantage of it.