Washington Post: We’re better off without Trump on Twitter. And worse off with Twitter in charge.
After the insurrection on Jan. 6, Facebook and Twitter suspended President Trump’s accounts. The emergency context and the immediate threat Trump posed justified the bans. But it was a remarkable demonstration of private power over the public sphere and represents its own threat to democracy: top-down, private control of speech in the modern public square.
Complaints by some conservatives that Trump had been “censored” by the tech platforms were greeted in many quarters with derision: The First Amendment, after all, does not typically apply to the decisions of private corporations. But that’s an artificially narrow view of the question. These companies, at the heart of our communications infrastructure, play an undeniable public role. And it was not only conservatives who expressed concern: The ACLU pointed out that “unchecked” private power was dangerous in this context, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel objected to the ban. Both suggested that a democracy should not be in a position where the decisions of a few unaccountable executives can restructure speech in politics. Moreover, the decisions cannot be viewed in isolation: These companies played an active role in getting us to where we are today by helping to promote divisiveness, racial hatred and conspiracy theories.
In short, we face overlapping democratic emergencies: the need to address the coup attempt and ongoing threats of violence, and the need to address the role played by big social media companies in our democracy — which includes enabling hyperpolarized political views, white nationalism, and general distrust of institutions and other Americans. The issue is one of extremely concentrated corporate power, and although the platforms are “private,” doing nothing would be unusual. We have a long tradition in the United States of regulating companies that dominate whole sectors of the economy, particularly in areas that profoundly affect the public sphere.
How will President-elect Joe Biden handle big tech? There are two key questions facing the new administration and Congress: Will they act to check the power of these companies, possibly by breaking them up? And will they regulate the business model of social media companies — regardless of whether they are partly dismantled — so that they do not promote extremism that can contribute to the kind of violence that took place at the Capitol?