The reverberations of Trump’s deplatforming as part of this larger shift will shake out for not just the coming days, but over the long term — and in everything from terrorism to public health. The reason is that it fundamentally alters the playing field.
Everything in the social media ecosystem was once tilted in the favor of toxic forces, from the algorithms that push our content feeds toward extremism to the companies’ longstanding reticence to admit it. Imagine a foosball game on a slanted table. Yes, the little soccer players could try to stop each rush of the rolling ball, but all their spinning wouldn’t matter in the end. Over the past few years, however, that table has started to be righted. Driven by outside pressure over election disinformation, mass killings, and COVID-19 striking close to home — and perhaps most significantly, internal employee revolts — the companies’ leaders have put into place a series of measures that make it harder for toxic forces. From banning certain types of ads to de-ranking certain lies, these safeguards built up, piece by piece, culminating in the deplatforming of the Internet’s loudest voice.
Of course, this shift is long overdue. Each new policy came after the fact. Those of us who work on this topic know that many horrible events fueled by social media could have been avoided or at least mitigated with such actions. For myself, the crystalizing moment was being told by a senior social-media executive after the mass killing in Pittsburgh that although his company had been able to limit ISIS’ use of their network, technical and legal reasons meant they couldn’t apply the very same measures to far-right extremists. But after several more social media-linked mass killings — Christchurch, El Paso, etc. — what he’d said was “impossible” suddenly became possible. As Internet wags have commented, the firms’ operating practices have been a bit like Calvinball from the Calvin and Hobbes comic, in which the rules are made up as they go.