There’s never been free speech on social media

Image: Tyler Merbler / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

In the immediate aftermath of the insurrection at the Capitol Building, every major social media platform in the United States decided to ban outgoing US President Donald J. Trump. These decisions were made in part — but only in part — because of Trump’s alleged role in instigating the violence that rocked the Capitol building.

For many people, this was seen as a relief. Trump has been one of Twitter’s most relentless plagues of hatred and demonstrably false conspiracy theories since long before he entered public office, and he has repeatedly violated the company’s terms-of-service. To others, however — many of whom lean conservative — this move was seen as an egregious assault against the First Amendment. What right does Twitter have, they ask, to silence a fairly elected President? If they can do this to a hundred-millionaire real estate con artist who swindled his into the highest office in the land, what’s to stop them from doing this to you?

The answer is: none, and nothing. Because Twitter, like Facebook and YouTube, is a private business that is not beholden to the First Amendment in the same way that the government is.

Historically, the rights of corporations to do whatever they want in the name of money has been a deified pillar of conservative rhetoric. After decades of GOP policies absolving corporations of any responsibility for anything, the idea of forcing a private business to publish the edicts of a government leader should be seen as far more authoritarian than allowing that company to choose who it does business with.

But there seems to be some confusion between free speech, and a free platform with a free audience. Twitter, like all social media platforms, is not an avenue for protected free speech. It is a business that offers a free publishing tool as part of its service. That’s not how they make their money, though. Their primary service — the one that reaps the profits — is advertising and data collection.

In other words: Twitter’s main product is people, which they sell to marketing firms.

That may sound dystopian and inhumane, but, well, it is literally true. By choosing to publish content for free on Twitter or Facebook, we are consenting to those companies selling our eyeballs and data. It’s frankly a brilliant grift, and our society has not only fallen for it, but embraced it.

Trump’s ban from Twitter is no different from, say, The Atlantic refusing to publish a Trump article. The Atlantic is a publishing platform; it produces a magazine that contains content, but its main business model is making money through advertising. The only difference is that The Atlantic is not a platform for user-generated content the way that Twitter is. As a result, The Atlantic actually has to pay more overhead to cover writers, editors, and designers for their content; social media, on the other hand, made a business decision to cut costs by getting free from us. That’s how the deal works.( This is also where Section 230 comes in; it protects the companies from the consequences of any user-generated content that might violate the law.)

Because these social media companies have no explicit editorial oversight, they have always reserved a right to moderate their content. Historically, this has been a pretty inconsistent process, often causing just as much harm as it does good. For every white supremacist who gets banned for a death threat, there’s a trans person who gets banned for sharing a photo of their top surgery, or a Black woman who is punished for using explicit language in describing an actual hate crime, or even just an LGBTQ+ person whose acknowledgment of their identity is labelled as “explicit adult content.” Content moderation is an absolutely terrible system, but it’s better than the alternative, because at least it can create spaces for creativity and communication. At the end of the day, however, it will almost always default to reinforcing the status quo power structure. Because that’s how social media sells people to advertisers. Because money talks. Because that’s how capitalism works.

Banning the outgoing US president from a platform doesn’t change any of that. It does not establish a slippery slope precedent. If anything, it’s actually remarkable that a person in power is being held to the same standards and terms-of-service as everyone else for once. At the same time, it’s not surprising that these platforms did nothing while Trump actually had power, and conveniently changed their tune just in time to appease the incoming administration. Because it’s all a business decision. Because that’s how capitalism works—for better, and for worse.

To be clear: this system isn’t great. There are a lot of legitimate reasons to be concerned about the monopolistic powers of Big Tech companies. But that’s been the case since long before Trump got banned from Twitter, or since Parler was removed from App Stores and Amazon Web Services. The fact that most of the Internet is hosted on AWS, and the fact that a private company is well within their legal and moral rights to remove content, is absolutely problematic. But that problem didn’t just suddenly appear in the last week; it’s been here, thanks to politicians who have repeatedly refused to rein in corporate interests. And it will continue to be the case until we do something about it. At the very least, that would require formalizing the Internet as the public utility it’s always been, or even just enforcing antitrust laws for once.

(There’s no way the GOP would go for any of that, of course, not if they had any ethical consistency, anyway. But let’s be real: if tech companies donated to Republican politicians at the same rate as, say, oil companies and predatory real estate firms, the GOP would absolutely be protecting them right now.)

In the meantime, we’re left with precisely the same Dystopian Cyberpunk Nightmare we’ve been dealing with for the last 20 years (which is the same one we were promised by every sci-fi book and movie in the 80s and 90s). But at least now we won’t have to contend with Trump’s trumped-up vitriol, so we can enjoy some peace of mind while we sell our content and attention in exchange for a fleeting human connection.

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