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Big tech didn’t show its strength by banning Trump from social media. It showed its cowardice

Yes, companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter went too far — but not in the way you think

James Ball
Monday 11 January 2021 17:46 GMT
Donald Trump has previously retweeted an image of himself depicted as Pepe the Frog - a popular meme shared throughout far-right forums
Donald Trump has previously retweeted an image of himself depicted as Pepe the Frog - a popular meme shared throughout far-right forums (TheDonald.Win)

If you’re still in the habit of listening to Republican lawmakers, the last few days have seen a new pinnacle of untrammeled corporate power and censorship, after Facebook, YouTube and Twitter finally acted to ban Donald Trump from their networks, along with thousands of his most conspiratorial followers.

The protests certainly have some novelty value, not least for Republicans — whose main accomplishments after a four-year presidency are huge tax cuts for corporations and the ultra-rich and the near-collapse of US democracy — expressing concerns about corporate power.

The actions taken by big tech certainly seem startling. As if throwing the leader of the free world off the world’s largest social networks wasn’t enough, Trump’s campaign was cut off from accepting payments and donations, and the conservative social media network Parler was taken offline entirely after Amazon refused to continue hosting its services.

The cumulative effect starts to feel like boundaries are being pushed. It might not be a violation of anyone’s First Amendment rights to be banned from a social network, just as it isn’t a free speech problem to lose a book deal, but to be banned everywhere — and for a whole online platform to be taken down overnight — starts to feel like a genuine risk to free expression.

Surely this shows the huge power of the big tech companies, if they are able to cut off the communications of the president in such a dramatic way? Many reasonable people have openly wondered as much. And that’s how it looks on the surface — but the reality is the last few days shows us the weakness and cravenness of the big tech companies, powerful though they seem.

By acting against Donald Trump while he is still president, the technology companies have fatally undermined their core excuse for inaction over the past four years: that the statements of the US president are clearly of public interest and so should be kept on the site and preserved for the record, even when they would otherwise be in breach of the terms and conditions.

The timing of the companies apparently each independently deciding to revisit its longstanding excuse is incredibly telling: they waited until Donald Trump had lost power.

The technology companies have sky-high valuations (and, in Facebook and Google’s case, astronomical profit) thanks to the fact they don’t have to meet the social costs of the harms their businesses cause.

There is a consensus across countries and across both sides of the political divide that networks don’t do enough to stamp out extremist content, don’t do enough to tackle abuse, don’t do enough to tackle polarization or misinformation, and perhaps even profit from a level of internet use which could border on addiction.

Some form of regulatory action against tech — especially social media — is surely inevitable, but the efforts of the internet giants to water it down or delay it have so far been phenomenally successful. Each year it is delayed is another year of bumper, multi-billion dollar profits, which effective action would probably reduce (though not eliminate).

That means big tech desperately wants to keep Congress onside — and so for as long as the Republicans held the Senate and Trump was in the White House, any kind of meaningful action against Trump or the lunatic fringe of the GOP base was a non-starter.

Action against Trump only came when the political cost of keeping him on their networks was higher than the political cost of throwing him off. It is likely not coincidental that it came after the Democrats had won Georgia, and thus control of the Senate, rather than before.

Another sign of tech weakness (or at least cowardice) was that each company acted in unison, while frantically trying to pretend that they were not coordinating, even if indirectly. Facebook and YouTube permanently banned Trump from their platforms a day before Twitter did, leaving the latter as the odd one out. It then quickly used the flimsy pretext of a tweet stating Trump would not attend Biden’s inauguration — far, far milder than the average Trump tweet — as justification for a permanent ban. It’s really not clear who that pretense was supposed to convince.

If tech companies were actually strong and assertive about their powers here, they would be happy to take different decisions at different times. Instead, they’re copying the habits of herd animals when threatened by a predator, flocking together and trying desperately not to be the straggler that gets picked off.

Calling the tech response to Trump a day late and a dollar short would be the understatement of the century, but it’s the result of total failure by lawmakers to force action.

The decision of what to do about Trump was left to tech companies who made significant profits and gained huge relevance by having him as a user, and whose political fortunes (and thus profits) also relied on not annoying him too much. Of course they shouldn’t have been the ones making these decisions — they were just the ones left holding the can, thanks to years of government inaction.

Despite the endless protests of Republicans on huge cable news shows, tech has no anti-Republican agenda — these companies just want to cash in in peace. But thanks to the failure of actual governments to decide what online regulation and minimizing online harms should actually look like — without threatening free expression — we’ve collectively outsourced all of these problems to a bunch of tech executives with no incentive and no aptitude to actually solve them.

Big tech looks all-powerful at first glance, unaccountable founders at the helm of companies with billions of users holding unfettered power over the global information system. The reality is those men are cowering behind team after team of lawyers and lobbyists, trying to work out what will do the least harm — to them and to their bottom lines.

We need to get a grip on big tech. We need to work out how to make the internet work for all of us. But we shouldn’t see this as the week big tech flexed its muscles, when instead it was nothing more than a defensive crouch.

James Ball is author of The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How it Owns Us, as well as global editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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