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Not a hill to… January 19, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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There’s been no end of chatter about the ejection of Trump (and as importantly QAnon and far rightists) from Twitter and Facebook and in certain quarters considerable fretting about freedom of speech issues – with some, for example Lucinda Creighton, arguing that next time it could be the left receiving this sort of treatment. I’m a bit unmoved by the latter argument. Since when did any channels of communication in societies favour the left other than our own? And to place any faith at all in the tech social media giants seems to be absurd. The simple reality is that structurally and in many other ways communications platforms, of whatever stripe, are already loaded against the left. And more than ever that points to the need to develop our own.

I’m even less moved by the ‘freedom of speech’ concerns. Many of you will notice that this site, to take another example, is a lot less concerned about that than some. For years we tied ourselves up in the idea that speech was an absolute – until the realisation came that it isn’t and just as if I was in a pub and someone sidled up to me and started mouthing off in racist or misogynist or just plain insulting tones I wouldn’t tolerate similar on here.

Moreover there’s a peculiarity about some of the arguments which seem to mistake Twitter or Facebook as the only mediums of communication, particularly for Trump, when he remains the President of the United States with all the heft that office (even after his particularly damaging tenure) can bring to bear. The day of the riot at the Capitol he issued video messages that were carried in full by… everyone. And still he spoke incorrectly about the election. Indeed this was noted in the Guardian during the week by someone who noted:

The last time I checked, the president of the United States of America was still able to call press conferences, release videos on the official White House website, use his own campaign website, and issue the proclamations and executive orders that go with the office, but it is true I suppose that he can’t post on Twitter or Facebook.

I like Kenan Malik in the Observer. For a former RCP and somewhat Spiked adjacent person he is more often than not a commentator of good sense, but perhaps tellingly on the issue of freedom of speech his absolutism perhaps blinds him to reality.

The problem is not just the anomalousness of social media as both public and private spaces. It’s also that we are faced with competing good things. Most people would probably agree with what social media should do: provide open forums for public discussion; minimise hate speech and threats; curtail the power of corporations to invade our privacy and to control the views we can access; restrict the ability of the state to censor political speech. The trouble is that one good often comes at the expense of another. Expanding freedom of expression can leave more space for hate speech. Tighter regulation means giving more power to corporations and politicians to curtail dissent.

And he continues:

So, while most people might agree as to what the good things are, they sharply differ on the priorities they would give to particular goods. I take a more liberal view because I see how censoring ideas or deplatforming figures whom I despise can open the way to wider restrictions. As the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, recovering in Germany after an assassination attempt, tweeted, Twitter’s removal of Trump will be “exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech” around the world. “Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say, ‘This is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter’.” From Uganda to Hong Kong, authoritarian regimes censor social media to silence opponents.

But as someone pointed out BTL, such regimes censor everything, not just social media. Indeed it is such a stretch to move from removing access to Twitter/Facebook in a broadly democratic society with a plurality of communications media that even now a Trump or anyone else can access to painting the picture of a PRC/Uganda that the conceptual vehicle is falling apart by the time it reaches its destination.

Of course Malik is right to an extent in the following:

Nor should we accord big tech magical powers. Why do we imagine, for instance, that it needed Twitter to rein in Trump? It is the politics and institutions of the United States that created the Trump phenomenon, from the enablers of the Republican party and corporate backers to the failure of the Democrats and the left to speak to many who feel abandoned and dispossessed. He is the product, too, of the decay of the public sphere and of a broader breakdown of civility. Too often, we seek technological and legal solutions to what are social and cultural problems – and then we are surprised when they don’t work. The answers to what we see as problems of technology may not be technological at all.

There are without question dynamics beyond social media involved here – alienation, various forms of culture and so on. But Trump has functioned as an accelerant. But Trump is also – and perhaps as importantly – a product of technologies that built around him a celebrity much greater than might have been expected long before Twitter. And it is unclear what particular sanctions Malik would bring to bear on a Trump or Trump-like individual. For four years and longer, Trump has purveyed actual falsehoods, not simply exaggerations. As President he was able to use the office in ways other users could not dream of. That disparity of power isn’t addressed by Malik. Perhaps because it is unaddressable. That the social media companies have woken up this late is testament to how craven they are, but those falsehoods had a political effect.

But then again these are private media. To talk of them in the context of social good is to misunderstand their function almost entirely. They don’t offer platforms to give freedom of speech, they do it in order to make money. That they have now taken the entirely rational, if morally compromised, decision to shut down Trump is them being true to what they actually are in a context of no real regulation. Why would they do otherwise? This error is often seen in respect to other media, The Irish Times, The Guardian and so on spring to mind. They owe nothing to anyone but themselves because they are not – as such – collective or public institutions (though sometimes they seem to want to present themselves as such). Of course we can hope for better, but we should never be surprised when they live down to the worst.

Which is not to say social media have no uses – but those uses are constrained precisely by who owns them and what they are for. That they can be useful is not a feature, it’s a side-effect. And one that is contingent at all times.

And social media is a part of the problem. For example, this week comes news that:

Researchers who monitor extremist groups said that the sweeping bans and takedowns of far-right accounts in the past 10 days had left many groups in disarray, and that the ongoing arrests of people who participated in the Capitol attack also appear to be having a deterrent effect.


And:

Online misinformation about the U.S. election fraud plunged by as much as 73 percent the week after President Donald Trump was kicked off Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, reports the Washington Post. There are other factors that could have contributed to that dramatic drop, including the banning of lots of accounts that peddled conspiracy theories, including those affiliated with QAnon. But, overall, the research by Zignal Labs suggests tech companies can prevent false information from spreading if they decide to take decisive action. In the week after Trump was banned from Twitter, conversations about election fraud plunged from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media platforms.

Of course this doesn’t mean that people stop believing mistruths. But if it circumscribes the space in which such mistruths are perpetuated I’m not complaining.

Again – for the left, the fact some on the right are bemoaning this (while notably saying that in the case of Trump the banning is justified) is irrelevant, as are the complaints of some liberals in respect of these events. As always this underlines the need for left media approaches.

Comments»

1. CL - January 19, 2021

Back in the 1930s the anti-Semite, Fr Coughlin, had a weekly radio show on the CBS network. When he refused to moderate his views CBS ended the arrangement. NBC followed suit. But Coughlin survived, renting time on other radio stations.

Apart from Twitter and Facebook there’s an extensive media ecosystem supporting Trump, right-wing talk radio, AON, Newsmax etc

” There is so much focus on social media companies, when arguably the media most important for Trump’s rise was television and the massive amount of earned media and free media he got in 2015 and 2016. . It was on conservative news outlets that he said the election was being stolen. Even without a Twitter account, the president is going to be able to go on TV. So, if we believe he should be banned from Twitter surely he should be banned from TV too? ” –
-Branko Marcetic

” Platform companies provide anyone and everyone with the infrastructure to reach potentially millions all at once. When that power is utilized by people with enormous political importance [to overturn an election], it is oppression.” – Joan Donovan
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/17/trump-twitter-ban-five-free-speech-experts-weigh-in

” CNN is making no mistake about it: It wants to censor and close Newsmax from broadcasting as a cable news channel.
Apparently jolted by the fact Newsmax has skyrocketed to become the 4th highest-rated cable news channel in the country, the liberal CNN is decrying what it calls Newsmax’s “election denialism” and is seeking to have it “deplatformed” from cable and satellite systems across the nation.”
https://www.newsmax.com/us/cnn-cancel-culture-big-tech-censorship/2021/01/17/id/1006021/

” There is Donald Trump’s exploitation of a powerful strand of nativist populism to try to stay in power and the highly partisan rightwing media that have helped fan the election-rigging conspiracy theory that led to last week’s insurrection in the Capitol.
In the background, a long-running aversion to internet regulation has left a regulatory vacuum. And, this being the US, everyone involved claims an undying dedication to free speech and the First Amendment….

Mr Dorsey opined on his own company’s site that blocking powerful politicians like this “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.
Such public soul-searching, however, comes alongside signs that some executives still reject the role their companies’ services have played in the US political drama.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, declared in an interview this week that the social network had been scarcely used to help organise the riot at the Capitol — a statement that flew in the face of many documented cases of co-ordination carried out on the service….
To critics outside the US, the riot in Washington and curtailing of Mr Trump’s tweets have been taken as a sign that the country’s civic discourse has gone off the rails — as well as evidence that the tech companies have grown too powerful. German chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that the US should take a lesson from Germany and pass stricter laws against hate speech, pre-empting private companies from overreaching into the realm of censorship.

Such ideas are widely dismissed in the US, where First Amendment rights are jealously guarded ”
https://www.ft.com/content/78a3ed8c-d930-4bf5-9f6e-1b6b4751090f

Liked by 1 person

2. Alibaba - January 19, 2021

Regarding freedom of speech concerns, when people come against you armed with guns, that changes the dynamic. It is legitimate to prevent freedom of expression in these circumstances and many others. 

How doable this is about Trump once television cameras are switched on and we live in an age of social media expansion is another matter.

Liked by 1 person

3. WorldbyStorm - January 19, 2021

Yeah, I’m not an absolutist in any direction on this, but freedom of speech isn’t an absolute either.

Liked by 1 person


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