On the Twitter ban

January 14, 2021 09:05
Photo: Reuters

Trump was banned on Twitter on January 8; his ban was met with polarising reviews from, as expected, two polarly opposed political communities. Yet to portray the reaction towards his ban as being reducible entirely into party lines, would be an unhelpful distortion of reality.

Conservatives and Trump supporters were by no means the only folks who were uneasy about Trump’s being removed from the platform – there were also those who are reasonably concerned about the overreach of tech companies, as well as the potential slippery slope embarked upon by Twitter as the flood-gates to seeming censorship were pried open by the decision.

I am by no means a fan of Trump. I loathe him – for his racism, incompetence, and blatant disregard for political decorum. Indeed, I took to celebrating his removal from Twitter – not because it was all-things-considered the rational thing to do, but because there was a strong sense of affective vindication on my part; indeed, the very judgment of celebration over the purge is emotive in kind – it mirrors the sense of elation one feels at the vanquishing of a boss on a RPG, or at a surprise birthday present. Sentiments, not fully fleshed-out propositions.

There are several reasons why we should feel uneasy about Trump’s removal.

Firstly, the ambiguities and lack of substantive clarity in Twitter’s statement render its case for removing Trump unconvincing. As someone who has qualms with many a statement put out by Trump – some parts of which are quasi-inciting, with other parts propagating blatantly false mistruths – I do not think Twitter’s official statement offered a resounding or convincing defence for eliminating Trump. For one, “President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate.” sounds less like a reasonable and uncontentious interpretation of events, than an extrapolative and mildly speculatory over-reading of the inept, deranged President’s stream of consciousness. Sure, he may not be keen on attending the inauguration – but of all the statements proffered that could plausibly suggest his being unfit for office and unwilling to accept a peaceful transition of powers, why this?

Twitter’s strategy is to hedge with qualifiers such as “may also serve…” and “those potentially considering violent acts”. Yet these qualifiers a) again reek of the demeanor and diction of a English literature major trying to spin their way into a thesis, and b) weaken the overarching message that they ought to be putting out – Trump’s platform shouldn’t be rescinded because his words “may…” or “could…” bring about certain outcomes over some unspecified future events; instead, it should be withdrawn because of past actions, past speech, and broadly demonstrable causal claims about what he did in the past; for one, his continued propagation of misinformation over COVID-19, his repeated sowing of seeds of mistrust in the political system, and his dog-whistling towards racists through xenophobic and mendacious speech.

The beauty of Twitter is that it is, nominally, a private platform – it need not argue that Trump did in fact cause such events, but that on grounds of i) Trump’s ostensible or perceived association with such ignominious events, and ii) its having reasons to refuse to entertain the words and speech of a public figure who is associated with such events, he should not be granted the opportunity to do so in the future. Twitter’s summative assessment, that “there are multiple indicators that they [Trump’s words] are being received and understood as encouragement to do so [replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6, 2021]]”, seemingly seeks to ground its removal of Trump upon Trump’s role in instigating the events on January 6. Yet if this were the primary justification, more detailed, well-substantiated, and the invoking of statements that are less ambiguous would be necessary – elsewise, Twitter risks coming across as partisan and ideologically dogged in its shoehorning of Trump’s words into a convenient narrative.

More generally, however, I am alarmed by the prospects of influential social media platforms having the rights to determine the kinds of speech they entertain, with little to no consultation of its users or the public at large. Twitter’s status as a private entity is indisputable – yet its influence is public, global, and wide-reaching. People start and end protests via Twitter; others derive most of their information and news from the platform. Discussions and arguments over Twitter could have career- and industry-changing implications. Millions of Twitter users – if not billions – unwittingly forsake their control over their personal data and information as they undertake the most mundane of actions, e.g. retweeting or favouriting Tweets, or following particular accounts.

As Rana Foroohar aptly points out in “Don’t Be Evil: The Case against Big Tech”, we should be worried about big tech given the rapid ascent of such corporations to a scale of influence that rivals that of the largest states and international organisations out there. Twitter is capable of engineering our understanding of reality, as much as it can shape our moral norms and values. Yes, we nominally consent to its doing so through the nebulous “terms and conditions” that some of us naively take as a definitive warranty – yet let’s face it: 99.9% of folks out there, including legislators and politicians, regulators and “experts”, haven’t a clue as to how these platforms ought to be regulated. The real and pressing question arising from Trump’s ban isn’t so much, “Is it justified?” as a first-order question – but the second-order question, “What gives social media platforms the right to decide?”

As the prominence of social media platforms continues to surge over the upcoming decades, we will inevitably be confronted by the following questions: What forms of speech are acceptable at large? What kinds of speech must regulators crack down upon? What should be the operative principles employed by private entities to curate and manage the contents generated by private actors through their platforms? Should there be a limit, if any, to speech that does not incite? Why, if at all, should physical harm be where the line is drawn? And how generously or expansively ought we interpret the “incitement” principle – cf. the age-old debate over shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (thanks, Wendell Holmes!)?

These are questions that cannot be easily answered – you can put together a panel of veterans and experts (e.g. the Facebook Oversight Committee), and they’d still struggle to come up with a consensus themselves. Identifying the problem is easy – finding the solution is way, way harder. Trump probably should have been banned, but Twitter’s handling of the whole saga leaves much to be desired.

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Assistant Professor, HKU