Trump’s online bans are not worth celebrating

11 Jan 2021

Image: © kerenby/Stock.adobe.com

With days to go until the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, the shift in power in the US has finally prompted Big Tech into action against poisonous online rhetoric. Too late, writes Elaine Burke.

Twitter was abuzz last weekend with the noteworthy absence of one notorious user. Following a brief stay of execution, Donald Trump was finally axed from the platform.

The outgoing US president is now permanently banned from his prized social media platform. He’s also banned from Facebook until the president-elect, Joe Biden, takes the reins later this month.

And it’s not just Trump’s account that got the boot. Twitter appears to have started spring cleaning early, with tens of thousands of accounts getting swept away. The company announced that it would permanently suspend accounts dedicated to sharing content related to the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, which included some high-profile Trump supporters. But the extent of this purge is only truly visible in the tweeted complaints of a steep drop in followers for many in Trump’s camp.

The question as to why prominent social media platforms are suddenly in the business of protecting people from the bile of the US president and conspiracy theorists who support him is easily answered by the ticking clock on his tenure. In just over a week, to quote Patrick Freyne, there will be a new sheriff in town. Biden’s administration is expected to slap Big Tech with regulation, so it’s no surprise that some players want to get into his good books early.

But the four years preceding this moment cannot be swept away with some last-minute, frantic tidying. There’s a foul smell lingering in the fixtures – one that needs deep and thorough disinfection.

In its statement on the permanent ban for @realDonaldTrump, Twitter correctly connected the dots between Trump’s online rhetoric and the surging violence directed at the US Capitol last week. Citing the tweets that finally led to the ban, the platform stated: “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 mobilised by different audiences, including to incite violence.”

But where was that attention to detail and context after Charlottesville? This isn’t even a case of having waited until the pot had boiled over to turn off the source of the heat. That moment passed in 2017, and after three and a half years the kitchen is aflame and tech companies are strolling into the fray with a glass of water.

Alex Newhouse researches far-right extremism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, using tools to monitor large-scale social media data. “I found evidence that right-wing activists had been explicit and open with their intentions for the 6 January demonstrations since at least mid-December. I have no doubt that the demonstration was specifically designed to force Congress to overturn the election,” he wrote in The Conversation.

“Although the act of storming the Capitol may not have been planned, the demonstrators had prepared for weeks to use at least the threat of physical violence to intimidate Congress and [US vice-president Mike] Pence during the certification process.”

If this was evident to a researcher using monitoring tools, surely it was clear too to the companies operating these platforms, or could have been had they applied the same focus. They are either aware of and choose to ignore their role in these violent acts, or they actively choose not to know. I can’t see any redeeming alternative.

‘I found evidence that right-wing activists had been explicit and open with their intentions for the 6 January demonstrations’
– ALEX NEWHOUSE

Now, even the refuges of dangerous online rhetoric are being hit by Big Tech’s new-found sense of responsibility. Parler – a last bastion of right-wing conspiracy theorists and, lately, US conservatives – has been removed from the Google Play store and suspended from Amazon Web Services, its cloud hosting partner.

The weekend’s actions are testament to the real power Big Tech wields after four years of claiming its best efforts were being made to stop the spread of hatred online. There’s more still to unpack there, as to whether corporate entities should have so much control over public discourse. But right now they have been caught in a lie and would prefer to market it as positive action.

Twitter, in particular, long relied on the argument that the tweets of a sitting US president were relevant to public interest and so should remain on the platform whether they violated its policies or not. This commitment to the public record is clearly of no concern now that the account has been permanently banned and all tweets now inaccessible. (Remember to tip your local online archivist for doing the real work of preservation that the public record requires.)

What the major social media platforms at the centre of this debate have in common is their headquarters in the United States. They are guided by the state of US politics and thus their global userbase is subject to the proliferation of its ideas. You don’t even have to look too hard to find the American tone in the far-right rhetoric here in Ireland.

This brand of extremism certainly wasn’t born online but it is stoked by the algorithms and methods of content distribution designed by online platforms. They purport to connect but they have been effectively used to divide. Their latest actions do not signify a reckoning, just a shifting of power from one side of that divide to the other.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com