Trump's Social Media Bans Just Facilitated a Peaceful Transfer of Power, but With a Catch
Every time I think I’m used to the pace of the 24 hour news cycle, the cycle finds a new way to shock me out of complacency. Today’s example is that the biggest news story is not a band of rebels both in and out of buffalo robes breaking into the US Capitol building. Instead, it’s that the president of the United States was banned by several social media websites, with several more taking actions aimed at punishing or quieting his followers. It should have felt weird to type that last sentence; that’s not a thing that should feel normal to say. The fact that it filled me with an only mild sense of despair and confusion makes me suspect the last couple of years have burned out some important abnormality-sensing neurons in my brain.
With that said, this post is not about Trump directly, and it’s not about the rioters. It’s not about who is right, who is wrong and who is the second coming of Satan. It’s not even about the word “coup” like every third article posted to the Internet this week, at least not directly. While those are important stories and discussions that deserve time, the nature of the “biggest news story” mantle is that there’s thousands of op-ed pieces out there covering that ground. You won’t suffer for lack of them, I promise.
Instead, I’m going to write about what the social media companies have done. I won’t legislate whether they were right or wrong in pushing out the bans. I’m not deciding whether they are taking sides or, if they are, whether they took the correct side. For reasons I’ll explain, I don’t think this matters nearly as much as it seems like it does. But even with those factors eliminated, the cut-and-dried actions and the probable motivations behind them are important to merit discussion on their own.
When I have a concept I want to express I’m occasionally lucky enough to find that someone else has done the work for me better than I could have done it myself. In this case I can steal the effort of The Last Psychiatrist, a legendary and defunct blog that very-probably-but-never-for-sure wasn’t written by a pre-Slate Star Codex Scott Alexander. In 2013, this was the blog to be reading and a big part of why was this entry. The post sought to explain the Real Beauty Sketches, a series of Dove soap commercials which claimed to challenge the idea of physical beauty. These particular ads were to my memory one of the bigger Internet controversies of that year; it was a simpler, more beautiful time. The author says this:
So let's go to the places where people pay attention, go to the "intelligent" media outlets where all the suckers hang out, and observe the most common criticism about this Dove ad: it has no black women in it. Never mind it does, that's a very telling criticism: why would you want black women in it? It's not the Senate, it's an ad, no, don't you hang up on me, why do you want blacks in the ad? Because it would represent the diversity of beauty? Because without them, it sends black women the wrong message about society's standards? Your answer is irrelevant, the important part is that whatever your answer, it is founded on the assumption that ads have the authority to set standards. Which is why, in your broken brain, the reflex is to complain about the contents of the ad, not assert the insignificance of ads. The con worked. Of course it worked: they selected you.
The point being made is that Dove doesn’t particularly care about beauty; it cares about selling things that just happen to be beauty products. Dove doesn’t care if true beauty comes from the inside at all; if it did and they thought that it mattered that it did, they certainly wouldn’t tell you about it - it’s contrary to their goal of making money. But The Last Psychiatrist is saying that they do care very much if you think of them as somebody who has a say in what beauty actually is.
If you fall for this, Dove wins - either you buy more of their soap or you end up talking about the ads and someone else does. It works whether you like the ads or not; so long as you talk, they win. Dove’s trick here is to get you to forget that it only cares about making money and optimizes for that sole condition at all costs. You know who else does that? All of them.
Which brings us around to Twitter.
You’ve read some articles about Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump. Think back to their motives - what did people say? One side says it’s bias against the right. The other side thinks it’s Twitter finally following their conscience, or maybe it’s giving into mob pressure because it has no choice. But neither of these is likely to be true unless you think Twitter just stopped liking money one day.
Trump-as-Twitter-President helped the site instead of hurting it; how many times in the past four years have you seen a headline about a Tweet? Trump’s followers had similar effect. A Twitter-mob-cancel of some un-liked right-wing person is newsworthy engagement - do you think they can get anywhere near as much traffic and engagement from hashtag games if they successfully stem the Trumpy side of their platform? Twitter’s conscience was never strong enough to cancel Trump or a thousand other right-wing sources before, despite being told over and over again to do so by their hard-left-leaning customer base. If Twitter is left leaning enough to think Trump’s a dangerous cancer, they certainly weren’t right-leaning the last four years; why are they only now taking action?
The most obvious change, of course, is Trump’s loss of both the presidency and the Senate in the election. Even the most devout of his believers are aware at this point that absent some questionable miracle Biden will be sworn in - that’s why we saw the Capitol riots in the first place. The most accessible explanation is that Twitter et al. were simply afraid to take any significant action against Trump until the writing on the wall was fully etched.
This theory doesn’t hold water, however. The Democrats have held the House since 2018; there’s no way the right could pass retaliatory legislation through Congress even if social media companies thought that kind of partisan action against them was likely. If the courts were in favor of Trump then, they still are. No matter how likely you think Biden is to try and pack the supreme court, there’s no way he’d get it done faster than a a lawsuit would move. The idea that Twitter was previously willing but unable to ban Trump (and perhaps Republicans en masse) doesn’t pass inspection - if they can do it now, there’s no reason they couldn’t have done it then.
If they weren’t being held back by the need for political cover, then why now? We’ve covered the morality angle; if this had been about doing right, it would have been done long ago. Let’s consider what the linked article from The Last Psychiatrist implies in this case: If Twitter’s ban of Trump is moral, it’s moral by accident. They aren’t in the business of being good dudes. Let’s say they want to make money, they want to keep making money without outside pressure hampering them, and the actions they take reflect that. With that in mind, why now?
There’s a tendency to compartmentalize events like this; it’s hard to keep every angle on every issue at front of mind, particularly when one of the angles involves broken windows and tear gas at the Capitol. Riots at the seat of our government and a Republicans vs. Democrats spin makes it easy to forget, but big monopolistic social media companies and the government are not exactly friends right now, and this is hardly a partisan issue. If you are Facebook, you are looking for leverage right now; if you are Twitter and the least bit paranoid you are doing the exact same thing.
It’s easy to forget because the focus is on bias and right vs. left politics, but having the Democratic Party hold both houses of Congress and the presidency has not reduced the risk of unfavorable legislation aimed at social media companies - it’s increased it. A deadlock is no danger to Twitter; a unified Congress and presidency that can pass bills hurting Twitter on a whim is.
If you are a social media company, how do you protect yourself from these threats? Well, you might do something like this:
Wait for Trump or some other Republican to do something at least kind of objectionable; it doesn’t matter what it is or how bad it is, so long as it’s at least arguably negative.
Take broad, strong action against Trump; completely muzzle him. Muzzle his followers. Don’t worry about over-reach but instead only about targets - your actions in this case are completely partisan.
Now pretend you are the Democratic Congress or Joe Biden and you see this happen. Pretend you are worried, like everyone else, about tech companies being too powerful and controlling too much of the conversation. But now the tech companies are coming out and hitting only Donald Trump, for things you are on record as saying he is astonishingly evil for doing (and what you in fact do say about anything he does). What are you going to do? Spring to Trump’s defense? Suddenly start defending the kind of talk you’ve been claiming is either hate speech or dog-whistling for violence?
More likely you sit back and let it happen; at least it’s aimed at Trump. But now there’s a new norm - Twitter can silence politicians for things that Twitter decides are lies - Twitter is now the arbiter of truth in the same way Dove was the arbiter of beauty. Except Dove’s gambit only sold a hell of a lot of soap, while Twitter’s gives them the power to unilaterally cut politicians off from their base, or label politician’s messages to their voters as lies.
But Twitter couldn’t do this alone, right? It would need at least some backup from other social media companies, and we’d have articles about that kind of coordinated action, right?
But Twitter is operating in a unique environment, right? Their threats only have power against terrible things, right? It’s not like Twitter specifically wrote a rationale for why they were banning Trump that’s completely dependent on Twitter’s interpretation of two Tweets that don’t mention violence as calls to violence, right? They wouldn’t write something clearly demonstrating that the necessary justifications for this new banning-public-figures norm start and end with what Twitter decides your words meant, right?
Social media companies at have over the last seven or eight months established that they perfectly comfortable and able to label anything a politician says as lies; this happened during a close election when one side was likely to take any help they could get. This was a rousing success. Now social media as a group has made clear that they are expanding that power to essentially remove politicians’ ability to speak meaningfully on the Internet at all; they are doing this at a time where the party controlling the legislative and executive branches would have a very hard time objecting. And they’ve done so with a rationale that allows them to do it to anybody. Feel free to mess with Twitter, says Twitter; it’s not like you need to communicate with voters using the only communication tools they use, or be able to defend yourself in the place most of them get their news.
People might say this all happened by accident, but that’s a stretch, right? Even if you believed it, does it change anything? Did Joe Biden not just watch the last guy with his job get taken down by Twitter calling him a liar before moving on to erase him from the Internet, except in terms of how Twitter and Facebook want to allow him to be portrayed? If you are in Congress and are already aware of how much your job changed because of the power of social media, are you somehow missing the fact that social media just got powerful enough to disappear you?
But instead of anybody talking about this, we get article after article about how one lame duck president won’t be able to say stupid stuff at 2:00 AM anymore. We get op-eds about whether or not Twitter and Facebook’s moves are morally correct, as if they had a single reason to care about such a thing. We get fully half the country crowing like they won something and the other half acting like Twitter hates them in particular, as if social media companies cared if you were Republican or Democrat instead of caring about whether you had the power to keep them from making money. We have everybody talking about social media’s role in the transfer of power, with nobody knowing they took the opportunity to transfer an awful lot of it to themselves.
And that, my friends, is how you sell soap.