After Donald Trump lost the US presidency last year, he retained the consolation prize of his Twitter account. Commentators debated how Mr Trump would seek to profit from the 88 million followers he had accumulated: a new TV career or another presidential bid?
Yet on 8 January, he lost his cherished platform after he was permanently suspended by Twitter because of “the risk of further incitement of violence”. Two days earlier a rabble of Trump fanatics, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists had stormed the US Capitol, resulting in five deaths. In a video posted on Twitter, Mr Trump told the mob, “We love you” and later tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide victory is so viciously & unceremoniously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
Twitter’s intervention was praised by some commentators but the timing was convenient: Mr Trump had only 11 days left in office when he was suspended. The social media site, which profited for years from the president’s incendiary tweets, thus minimised the risk of retaliatory action.
[See also: Why Trump isn’t a fascist]
Mr Trump’s suspension raises more profound questions. By barring the president, Twitter acted as a publisher, making an editorial judgement about the content hosted on its platform. Yet it is precisely this status that the social media firms have long eschewed. Under Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, they are unaccountable for the content that is published on their platforms. Though they have a duty to remove any posts that violate federal criminal laws, they cannot be sued for libel and are not regulated in the manner of publishers. That is surely wrong.
The suspension of Mr Trump exposes this pernicious double standard. Twitter is content to act as a publisher for PR purposes, but as a business it prefers to be treated as a platform, unencumbered by the standards that legacy publishers must uphold. The Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, highlighted Twitter’s arbitrary approach: “Don’t tell me he [Mr Trump] was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn’t ban anyone (not that I ask for it).”
Facebook has pursued a similar approach. In a 2018 court case against the tech company Six4Three, which had been denied access to users’ data, a lawyer for the tech giant said: “The publisher discretion is a free speech right irrespective of what technological means is used.”
In truth, since their inception social media platforms have acted unequivocally as publishers. As Barack Obama observed in a recent interview: “They are making editorial choices, whether they’ve buried them in algorithms or not.” He cited the danger of “deepfake” videos, which use artificial intelligence to swap one person’s face with another.
The Covid-19 crisis and the rise of remote working has turbocharged the influence of Big Tech. Its overweening power – fused with piety and self-righteousness – is forcing an overdue reckoning. Google has been sued by the US Department of Justice after being accused of maintaining an illegal monopoly over online search and search-related advertising.
The Federal Trade Commission has launched a similar antitrust suit against Facebook, which acquired rivals such as WhatsApp and Instagram. Epic Games, a video game firm, has sued Apple over the up to 30 per cent revenue share that the company derives from purchases in its App Store.
For too long, politicians and publishers were bedazzled by the tech companies’ moralistic promise to forge a better world. Don’t be evil, they said. But this illusion has been dispelled: tech giants are not altruistic, but ruthlessly self-interested corporations that jealously guard their privileges.
The technologies they deploy – many of which depended on publicly funded research – should not be used to deter accountability. This includes taking responsibility for the content that appears on their sites. The tech giants must no longer enjoy the privileges of publishers without the costs.
This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war