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Twitter Nukes Trump

This was Twitter Safety’s January 8 post, full of noble concern: “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them – specifically how they are being received and interpreted off Twitter – we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

Is it ever wise for a social media platform to suspend the accounts of political representatives, especially if they are of such character as Donald J. Trump? The question is a big tangle, though anything to do with the exiting US president encourages hotted up simple binaries, most of it emotive rather than cerebral. As with any forms of expression, the inner censor starts taking hold against content that is disliked, considered offensive or, as in the recent round of Trump tweets, delusionary and inciting in character.

The reaction of Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) to Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account was but one example of the censor writ large. Bowman had taken to the platform to demand that Twitter suspend the president’s account, and asked why he was “still out there tweeting after inciting a fascist mob.” This streakily hyperbolic statement was nothing compared to the joyous, ghoulish note he posted on learning of the suspension: banning the president from Twitter had been as significant as the capturing Saddam Hussein. Wonderful of Bowman to remind voters of a catastrophic, illegal invasion of a country supposedly armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, and eager to deploy them against the US and its allies.

The reasons for Twitter’s suspension of the account were themselves political acts initiated by a market actor. Barring the most powerful office holder in the United States from having an avenue to his supporters is an open admission to political interference. It is a position on restricting and suppressing forms of communication to constituents and voters, notably ones deemed unsavoury in accordance to piecemeal rules made by market considerations.

The company actually identifies the culprit tweets as well. One was the announcement that Trump would not be attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. (Is it even their business to be worried about ceremonial protocol?) The second involved praise for “75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me,” and were not to be “disrespected or treated unfairly.” The timing was important here, given the march on and into the US Capitol a few days prior.

Twitter duly editorialises, disapproves and dispenses. “Due to the ongoing tensions in the United States, and an uptick in the global conversation in regards to the people who violently stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behaviour from his account in recent weeks.”

The virtue of having Trump vent his spleen all over Twitter should be palpably obvious: to open a door to his indignant, at times adolescent world, one unvarnished and uncontaminated by any advisory circle. Conventions could be trashed; the acceptable could be sullied and soiled. This did wonders for instability and bedevilled the Washington establishment, but it was an inspiring weapon for his supporters and a shock to the business-as-usual cadres who think democracy is good as long as it is conveniently correct. The president was no longer kept within the cage of sober expertise and cautious control. He was, quite literally, in global circulation.

Trump supporters are naturally indignant about the move, and have, erroneously, drawn the wrong conclusion about whether his free speech has been affected or not. The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from government action vis-à-vis that speech, not the inconsistent, bumbling decisions of well-moneyed social media behemoths. Jeremy Mishkin of Montgomery McCracken in Philadelphia, an advocate versed in First Amendment jurisprudence, suggests that the protection does not apply if Twitter “decides it is not going to participate in disseminating someone else’s message.” A newspaper, he analogises, is not obligated to publish the news release of a politician.

The more salient, and concerning conclusion to draw from the ban is the control of political content as it is shared on such private corporate platforms. That remains the troubling preserve of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and company. Fashion, whim and being in the good books of the moment are their guiding lights. “It’s about the free market,” Jake Millar tells us in GQ, “not free speech.”

As it happens, that fashion and whim favours the Democrats, who are ecstatic that social media companies have finally discovered their censoring mettle. Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Communications director and director for communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign made no secret of the alignment of interests. “It has not escaped my attention that the day social media companies decided there actually IS more they could do to police Trump’s destruction behavior was the same day they learned Democrats would chair all the congressional committees that oversee them.” Cosy times lie ahead.

Trenchant criticism of the ban has been marginalised as apologias for domestic terrorism and the rants of pro-Trump fanatics. More measured analysis has been, as always with assessing Trump, absent. The ACLU did state, if tepidly, that such moves were dangerous to expression. “It should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions.”

The reaction in other countries was also one of concern. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as she so often does, had a punt both ways. Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, accepted that social media platforms “bear great responsibility for political communication not being poisoned by hatred, lies and by incitement to violence.” But freedom of opinion was “fundamental” and should only be tampered with in accordance “to the law and within the framework defined by legislators – not according to a decision by the management of social media platforms.” To that end, Merkel, he explained to reporters, found the decision to block the accounts of the US president “problematic.”

In Australia, government ministers have taken issue with Twitter’s erratic approach to hosting content. Why kick Trump off the platform, yet host offensive, doctored material by Chinese outlets featuring a bloodthirsty Australian soldier, knife pressed at the throat of an Afghan child? That image, fumed Michael McCormack in a one week spell as acting prime minister, “has not been taken down, and that is wrong.”

Australian government backbencher Dave Sharma, while agreeing in principle that banning Trump from the platform might have been appropriate given the facts, feared “the precedent of big tech making decisions about whose speech, and which remarks, are censored and suppressed.”

In the guise of Twitter, the US has found a political agent of interference of its own. It has become a gatekeeper curating material that is released to the public. Other big tech giants are doing the same, cleansing platforms of the unfashionably scurrilous. Move over, you foreign rascals; Silicon Valley is here to shape and determine the content of US politics and, if necessary, the politics of other countries.

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14 comments

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  1. Karen Kyle

    Too bad Binoy…..social media can do what it likes. Nothing to do with you. And Facebook does follow the law re racist speech, inciting violence etc, although it took them long enough. And because they are all Tech nerds they often failed to spot covert political ideology and dog whistles.They are better at it now….they must have hired people with the necessary skills.

  2. Michael Taylor

    Nothing to do with you.

    Oh, so now you’re telling our writers what they can and cannot write about.

  3. Karen Kyle

    No. I am saying social media as privately owned entities can publish what they like and no-one can stop them from deciding what they will and will not make public.

  4. Michael Taylor

    Then you would agree that I could delete your comments or block you if I wish? Or anyone else’s if I so wish?

  5. Karen Kyle

    Yes……although if you block people because you merely disagree with them the site would lose some writers and commenters I suspect.

    Twitters reason for blocking Trump was more than justified, it was probably necessary. Now Trump will have to use press releases and conferences interviews etc, he has not been silenced by a long shot…….but he would have to answer questions and he doesn’t like that. He prefers a medium without questions, obviously.

  6. DrakeN

    In my view, Michael, it would be a good move on your part if you did so. As they say, one is entitled to one’s opinions, but not to one’s own facts. Karen Kyle’s frequent deviation from factuality is quite disturbing to me as a person with a penchant for exactitude.

  7. Michael Taylor

    Karen, there are a couple of reasons why I would block someone, namely, being if they are abusive to other commenters or make threats to them. I highly doubt that we would lose authors and commenters for that.

    And there is one other thing we really, really hate: Commenters attacking the author instead of the message.

    You got on the wrong side of me when you continually attacked Dr Venturini. I don’t care if you like the good doctor or not. That’s not on the table for discussion. And you have regularly announced your dislike for Dr Binoy.

    I would kindly ask that you stop your regular digs at him. It’s not what we’re here for.

    You have regularly shown that you contribute valuable and intelligent discussion. That is what we’re here for.

  8. Geoff Andrews

    Michael, The essence of Ms Kyle’s first comment was: “social media can do what it likes”. Her follow up comment: “Nothing to do with you” could not be construed as trying to tell your writers what they can and cannot write about. Her basic factual observation (DrakeN note) was that the media companies have complete control over what they publish (with which you subsequently agreed and she acknowledged). Perhaps you heard a sneer in “nothing to do with you” and overreacted? If she can regularly take digs at Dr Kampmark and the basis of each dig is by pointing out a fallacy, contradiction or inconsistency, then it’s fair comment irrespective of her perceived dislike. If her comments are incorrect, then there are enough readers with a penchant for exactitude to gently chastise her. In the early 1950’s, we were taught that we had the right to say anything in public as long as it was not blasphemous, seditious or libelous. The only way available to express an opinion in public was by writing to the editor (subject to censorship) or stand on the street corner or in the corner of a park with a PA system. I don’t think talk back radio had been invented in 1950.

  9. Gangey1959

    Stop it children. I worked late and I have a long day in front of me.
    It seems to me that the entire social media “censorship”situation has become Pythonesque in it’s stupidity. Look up “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”
    Any media platform, or at least the owner/operators thereof have the ability to shape the stories, and therefore the truth, facts, bullshit done as reality in any way they want. Or need. We ALL on here at AIMN have been banging on incessantly about voldemurdoch’s manipulation of reality to suit the re-election od the lnp, or climate denialists, or little green men in my weetbix, (It’s ok, the dog ate them quite happily), or whatever. The problem is the uninformed who believe messengers like the “journalist” blot with a mindless, almost pagan, worship of every word.
    If twitter had not deleted the trumpet’s account, but had put a great big warning on every post that the contents needed to be fact checked, no-one could have complained. If Rugby Australia had just “benched” israel folau, and told him that his team mates had said they could not play beside someone with those public views, and he needed to either withdraw them, or reconsider his sporting future, RA would have taken the high ground, and left the dickhead with the option of pulling out of his contract, at no cost to RA, or pulling his head in. Kneejerk reactions always leave someone in pain.
    I agree with GA’s interpretation on the above. There is nothing any of us can do about any social media platform, and yes Michael, if you don’t like me feeding little green men to my dog I guess I’ll have to face the consequences.
    Lets all just hope that when the global dust has settled, and Australia’s next general election coames around, that the general population remembers that it is tired of being up to it’s neck in shite, and that the people making the biggest waves are the lnp dealers who have been doing since the lying bastard howard snatched power. Including the Rudd/Gillard governments.

  10. Michael Taylor

    Gangey, you’re safe. You’re always welcome here.

  11. leefe

    ” … if you don’t like me feeding little green men to my dog I guess I’ll have to face the consequences.”

    Can you at least please ensure that the dog is not allergic to them?
    And is a humane method of butchering them not an option?

  12. DrakeN

    Gangey1959: “…that the general population remembers that it is tired of being up to it’s neck in shite,…)

    Have you not noticed the delight which so many people find in creating enough bullshit to drown an elephant?

    Then, of course there’s the endless production of said excrement by commerce, politics and religions alike so, like it or not, all we can actually do is tread water/shite with all our strength.

  13. Ken Fabian

    Banning someone on commercially run social media platforms who has been inciting a mob to overturn the US election, resulting in injuries and deaths as well as intentionally undermining confidence in the institutions of US representative government, sounds entirely reasonable to me.

    Should Donald Trump say something deserving of media dissemination and public attention- or simply lacking offensive and dangerous rhetoric – I have no doubt it will be reported. There is much wrong with mainstream news media but they are capable of sufficient judgement to do that.

    Making this about freedom of speech and censorship seems inappropriate as well as an untimely distraction.

  14. Michael Taylor

    I too have no issue with Twitter giving him the flick, Ken. Their decision was justified.

    But now we’re seeing the flip side.

    With all platforms shutting down Trump and his extremist supporters… we don’t know what they’re up to.

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