As a reaction to the invasion of The Capitol building in Washington social media platforms and application hosts banned Donald Trump, some of his family and political associates, and many of his supporters. The recipients of the bans lost access to social media accounts and extreme-right platform Parler lost its host and went offline.
The banning spree was not informed by moral considerations or by integrity, it was motivated by concern about the new USA (Democrat) government’s possible changes to law affecting large online platforms and businesses. Apple, Twitter and Facebook share a single objective: Profit. Every decision they make is calculated carefully to maximise their future incomes.
For the entirety of his presidency Donald Trump and his political associates used social media platforms, particularly Twitter, to misinform the public and rouse a rabble. None of the major online communication platforms restricted the misuse. They waited until Joe Biden won the presidential election in November 2020 before taking any action.
Prior to the assault on the Capitol building on January 6th 2021 there were no online restrictions on the organisation of and the promotion of the assault. Bans on organisers and promoters were imposed immediately afterward. Restrictions imposed by the largest online communication platforms after the assault on the Capitol were driven by fear of regulatory retaliation and were consistent with other restrictions inspired by fear of state suspension of service including self-censorship by platforms in, for example, China and India.
During Trump presidency Twitter, Facebook and Youtube closed social media accounts and video channels of socialist activists and governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Palestine. Those closures remain during Biden’s presidency and similar accounts were shut down on Biden’s first day as president. Profit is the platforms’ sole objective and political expediency is a tactic to maintain that objective.
Under the guise of responding to organised promulgation of far-right philosophy, self-appointed liberal arbiters of ethics intend to increase control of communication. Their disdain for far-right politics is partly theatrical and partly driven by desire to avoid electoral competition but, even if some of their concern is sincere, censoring extremism neither removes it nor restrains it as Caitlin Johnstone explained in Caitlin Johnstone on countering Trumpism.
Removal of extreme-right views from the web is done reluctantly by platforms and hosts but they know when it is pragmatic to do it. They know also when it is unwise to restrict access. If Trump had won the 2020 election there would have been no online restrictions of extreme-right opinions including those that called for violence. Communication platforms allow different degrees of freedom of speech in different countries. The differences match different political stances of respective governments. Business pragmatism, the surest route to profit, is the only ethic.
Pre-Biden, when interrogated by various governments’ representatives the responses of owners of platforms or platform hosts – Zuckerberg (Facebook), Cook (Apple), Dorsey (Twitter), etc. – were inconsistent, contradictory and evasive; they could not commit themselves to censoring extremism nor to allowing it. They waffled unconvincingly as they struggled inwardly about the balance between high user numbers and threats of government regulations and the balance between liberal complaints about extremism and the fact that an extremist was in power in the most lucrative country in the world for internet businesses. Post-Trump, those struggles concluded with a lean toward the demands of authoritarian liberalism. Now, in the world of conservative liberalism, social media platforms are hypersensitive to criticisms of their apparent lack of responsibility toward offensive, abusive and threatening content.
The post-Trump purge erased (temporarily) tens of thousands of hateful extremist far-right voices, both real and automated, from social media platforms and removed some extreme-right sites entirely. The clean-up was swift and extensive. As a by-product of an online purge of extremism, censorship of left-wing politics is not accidental. That should be obvious to all socialists and communists. Another analysis by Caitlin Johnstone in The Pendulum Of Internet Censorship Swings Leftward Again:
“That purge [of extreme-right] was broadly supported by shitlibs and a surprisingly large percentage of the true left, despite the overwhelming and growing pile of evidence that it is impossible to consent to internet censorship for other ideologies without consenting to censorship for your own.”
“You use it [social media] to bring consciousness and understanding to your ideas and your causes. Consenting to the institutionalization of the censorship of political speech is consenting to your own silence on this front, which will mean the only people who will be able to quickly share ideas and information online with the mainstream population will be those who support the very power structures you oppose.”
Left-wing accounts that were removed recently were, predominantly, organisational accounts for socialist activism and knowledge sharing. Success of online socialist action is the reason why some governments are worried.
Major platforms have been under pressure to censor socialist organisation for several years. In UK Theresa May commissioned Lord Paul Bew to concoct a report in 2017 on ‘Intimidation in Public Life.’ Bew concluded that censorship of social media was needed and that alleged perpetrators should be barred from voting in elections. In 2018 May asked the then Minister For The Constitution Chloe Smith to follow-up Bew’s recommendations for restricting access to voting. Later that year Tory chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee Damian Collins created The Declaration that declared ‘Principles of the Law Governing the Internet.’ None of these proposals and statements had any worth. All were expressions of fear of the capability of social media to enable organisation, solidarity and sharing of information. The targets of the censorship were left-wing activists.
Whether enacted by governments or by media (news media or social media) censorship of extremists on the right is pragmatism, a publicity stunt and requires persuasion to combat deceptive cries of “free speech” but censorship of socialists is always a political decision. Censorship of socialists is aimed at effective opposition; it is deliberate.
Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Cook will do what is best for their respective businesses profits. Neoliberals will censor some far-right activists but their focus will be on censoring and neutering socialist activism.
Ben Burgis for Jacobin