The deplatforming of Donald Trump raises concerns about everyone’s speech online

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Anyone paying even the remotest attention to last week’s news will have noticed that soon-to-be-former American president Donald Trump was toppled from his Twitter throne, with Facebook’s various platforms following suit. The ban, initially a temporary initiative, quickly became a permanent deplatforming for the departing politician.

In Facebook’s case, Trump is banned from posting to the social network at least until he is no longer the American president. In Twitter’s case, Trump is banned indefinitely. The reason given is that Trump’s “…statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence…”, eventually finding that Trump’s account is in violation of Twitter’s Glorification of Violence Policy.

In addition, alternative social network Parler has found itself deplatformed, as have more than 70,000 QAnon supporters. All of these events, no matter how you may feel about them, raise questions about speech online. Specifically, that your presence on various platforms isn’t tied to anything sensible like rules or a sense of community. It’s tied to how much money you’re worth to the companies that run everything.

It’s just business

However you feel about Donald Trump having his social media toys taken away (for the record, I reckon it happened several years too late — but the second best time for it is right now), the circumstances and timing around the ban illustrate something about online speech we might not fully appreciate. And that is that our speech can be stripped away, at any time and for any reason. You don’t have to be a horrible person for it to happen. The business currently in control of your speech just has to find it inconvenient.

Donald Trump was a horrible person and he wasn’t banned from his social media accounts because he incited his supporters to violence and they overtook the US Capitol. Donald Trump was banned because his continued presence on various social media platforms was about to cost those platforms more than he was returning in investment. Those two events just happen to look very similar from where we’re sitting.

Trump used to be very, very good for business. His presence on Twitter, with more than 88 million followers, saw the president wielding the social network like a weapon. But it also saw vast amounts of traffic directed to the service — simply because America’s mad king was starting a nuclear war with Kim Jong Un, or whatever other mental achievement he was attempting this week. Trump is controversial but, most importantly, he didn’t really get anything substantial done on the platform. And Twitter wasn’t about to kick him off the service when he hadn’t actually done anything.

Ditto Facebook, which went out of its way to bend the rules governing Trump and his supporter’s conduct on the social network. Trump and those in his orbit pushed heavily against Facebook’s boundaries but it was worth Mark Zuckerberg’s time (and money) to keep him around. Because he was more valuable standing inside and pissing out than he was standing outside and pissing in.

Until, that is, his actions — which always had a real-world effect — became too much to ignore. Not solely for the effect Trump and his sycophants may have had on American democracy but because being complicit in that would cost Facebook, Twitter, Google and the rest actual money. Traditional media — which was instrumental in putting Trump in the White House — won’t ever answer for Donald Trump. But big tech is also hoping to dodge the blame, in the form of investigations, that could affect their bottom line, and possible forced restructuring. Unless, that is, they hit him with the banhammer as hard as they can.

Deplatforming’s bad?

So Donald Trump and a selection of his fans were kicked off various platforms in 2021. And they were mostly kicked off because of the potential threat to the company coffers — only nobody’s ever going to be honest about that. There are all manner of reasons being given for why he had to go but they’re all just good public relations. The people who gave him his platform were making money from it. And they suddenly stood to lose out. Trump became bad for business.

It just happens that business and broader social interests align at the moment. Kicking Trump out and banning QAnon — while these events will only drive conspiracy theories harder than ever — are actions that should have been taken ages ago. Trump was left in place because he made money. He was allowed to achieve what he did on social media thanks to business decisions and was only limited once he threatened the platform itself. Everything he did prior to the breaking point is being conveniently ignored. But it still happened. What’s taking place now is not censorship. It’s just business.

It may be worth considering how your own speech is conducted, at this point. Though you’re not a maniacal American president, you stand an equally good chance at seeing your voice in the world turned out like a light. It may be because you’re an actual Nazi saying horrible things on the internet but it might also be the result of a policy change — a change in the way the people who supply your platforms do business. Blizzard did just that in 2019 when it banned one of its Hearthstone players for supporting Hong Kong. There was nothing political about it — Blizzard was limiting a threat to the company from the Chinese government.

In an instance like this, you’ll find yourself cut off from the world’s avenues of discourse with very little recourse. Your online speech, in the forms it now exists, is mostly a vehicle for data collection, which ties back to advertising revenue for large companies. Taking it away from you is not censorship. It’s just ‘protecting the business model’.

If Twitter decides to terminate your account, you’re unlikely to get it back. If they opted to do so for no reason at all, you’re still just as banned. Facebook might one day decide you’re not welcome (though in Facebook’s case, you’ll really have to not be worth the data they can harvest from you) and you’re cut off from the conversations that take place on its platforms. Facebook already wields its influence like a bludgeon, straight-up telling its WhatsApp users last week that they will either accept the company’s newest data collection policies or they must go elsewhere. The social media giant is confident that you won’t go anywhere else because this is where all the people are. It’s also incorrect on that last point.

This is a point that isn’t considered enough: Social media companies present their platforms as places were people can interact but they all operate as a business, rather than a forum. They’ll reward awful behaviour if it pulls in the pennies and they’ll ban folks that cost them — be it revenue or reputation. Social media gives us the illusion of speech, but that illusion is only real for as long as you’re a good earner. You’ve been given a microphone and a gentleman at the other end of the wire is recording everything you say. But if you start costing him money, he’s not going to let you scream in the park with all his other captive birds any more.

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