Some unstructured thoughts on Trump, Twitter, Parler and the last two weeks in tech

A lot happened in tech the last two weeks. Here are my unstructured thoughts.

I hesitated to dive into this debate, even though I have been talking, reading, and writing about social media for over a decade now. To have an opinion on the deplatforming of the President as well as the swift removal of Parler and Gab from Amazon Web Services (AWS) seems to be the epitome of the overpolitization of the United States.

I have had to remind too many people that in kicking off Trump and others, the platforms were exercising their free speech rights. The 1st Amendment is about government limitations on speech.

Is the president, because of his political position, uniquely shielded from platform rules? In short, can he say anything he wants? Are there no statements that should get him kicked off of these platforms?

Censorship isn’t cleanly or narrowly defined. Like many other essentially contested concepts, it is a reference without a clear referent. In one context, I saw censorship defined as the act of “trying to prevent other people from hearing certain ideas.” While workable, this understanding of censorship leads to a more general and uncomfortable conclusion. Twitter has 1st Amendment protections for its censorship of the president.

If it can be shown that a platform is censoring, then what? Dubbing an act censorship doesn’t trigger legal review.

As the ACLU’s general counsel David Cole put it, “It is virtually impossible to articulate a standard for suppression of speech that would not afford government officials dangerously broad discretion and invite discrimination against particular viewpoints.”

The act of deplaforming President Trump feels both small and large. Why it’s small: The President still has the ability to sway the agenda unlike anyone in the United States. Taking away his ability to tweet seems like a small change to that, especially since he has so many other outlets.

Why it’s large: On the other hand, the act of deactivating a sitting president is an invocation for a higher form of warfare. Politicians of all stripes, but especially Republicans, will respond. However, the subtext is even more telling. If President Trump is truly affected by being cut from Twitter, what does that say about his influence?

Thomas Sowell once said, “The media are less a window on reality, than a stage on which officials and journalists perform self-scripted, self-serving fictions.” While only part of the truth, which scripts are being played? Who has the most to gain and lose with the deplatforming?

Much like censorship, the term digital public square lacks clarity. The legal underpinnings of the public square, known as the public forum, came about because streets, parks, and sidewalks are hardscapes, or immovable spaces, designated for public use. Limiting speech in the public square became protected because it was where physicality met the 1st Amendment. It is not clear that such an approach applies to social media.

Even if there is a digital public square, social media doesn’t dominate. Around 18 percent of people get their political news primarily through social media, according to Pew. In contrast, 25 percent get their political news through a website or a dedicated news app.

Parler committed some serious technical missteps that led to a massive leak of nearly all consumer data. In response, CEO John Matze took the site offline to “rebuild [it] from scratch.” It isn’t well remembered that MySpace suffered because of its serious technical errors.

As Jillian York noted, “Apple forced Tumblr’s hand hardly two years ago by threatening to kick it out of the App store if it didn’t do something about the child sexual abuse imagery it was unknowingly hosting, resulting in a near-total ban on nudity and sexual content on the site.”

As Title9Jen noted on Twitter, “our AWS contract gives Amazon the ability to terminate for violations of their Acceptable Use Policy. We negotiated and have some protections like notice and an opportunity to cure any AUP violations. Very unlikely Parler negotiated their contact based on what I’ve seen.”

Again on Twitter, Berin Szoka explains why Parler can’t use antitrust to sue against “political animus” because the First Amendment protects Twitter and Amazon’s right to refuse to carry abhorrent content.

Google’s contribution to the political parties was basically even split in the 2020 election, 50.35 percent went to Democrats, 49.65 percent went to Republicans.

First published Jan 18, 2021