Characterised by its youth, genius, and more than a hint of arrogance, Silicon Valley has long been seen as a regulation-free wild west, where companies set their own rules and innovate faster than old, dusty governments can legislate against them. Yet, as 2021 begins, awareness of the central role that social media, and Big Tech more broadly, play in our politics and daily lives has never been greater. Facebook and Twitter’s near-synchronised move to kick Donald Trump from their platforms after he used his accounts to spread patent untruths about the US election, as well as Apple and Amazon’s blanket blackout on the services of the controversial app Parler, have brought increased attention. So much attention, in fact, that actual, substantive change might be right around the corner. But, before we get to all that, let me take you back, long ago, to 2016.
The 6th of March 2016, to be precise. Fresh from a big win in the Republican primaries on Super Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “How do you fight millions of dollars of fraudulent commercials pushing for crooked politicians? I will be using Facebook & Twitter. Watch!”
And watch we did. Over the next 4 years and 10 months, his incessant Twitter activity might have first entertained us- in an appropriately Oxford ‘I can’t believe someone could be so stupid’ kind of way- but quickly scared us. In time, the grim portent of this tweet was realised: Facebook and Twitter were Donald Trump’s tools, at his disposal to spread lies, fuel tensions, and moan about CNN. For that reason, I am glad, like most, that Donald Trump has been booted from these platforms (poor CNN!).
Yet, if you’ll indulge the English student in me for a moment, the grammar of Trump’s tweet masks a reality as concerning as any of the former President’s online outbursts. In a classic Trumpian move, he takes for himself the active voice in the sentence “I will be using”, when in fact the inverse is just as true. Twitter and Facebook have been using Trump from the beginning, and in an imperious display of power, as easy as flicking a switch, they have muzzled the leader of the free world. Now that it is no longer economically expedient to let Trump ramble and rave on their platforms, they have disposed of him. How can it be right that this decision is left up to private companies with a whole raft of vested interests?
Of course, Trump shouldn’t be allowed to incite violence or warp reality on the internet without consequence. He should have been removed long before the fatal assault on the US Capitol, when he was guilty of spreading potentially fatal lies about the dangers posed by coronavirus and propagating white supremacy. But the decision of what those consequences look like must not be concentrated in the hands of a handful of Silicon Valley moguls.
Often, the power of mainstream social media platforms feels absolute. They are unbound by any international regulatory framework, and thus can brazenly abandon any pretence of global consistency, mercurially shifting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Equally, domestic loopholes, such as Section 230 in the US—a clause that relieves internet companies of any responsibility for the content published on their sites—make it even harder to pin social media malpractice to specific legislation. Despite lofty statements of altruistic intent and litanies of ‘we believe that [insert any vacuous and/or anodyne principal]’ declarations, these companies are ruled overwhelmingly by self-interest.
That might be alright when they decide it is in their interests to silence a figure as dangerous as Trump. It keeps them onside with the incoming Democrat-controlled US government and staves of further intrusive regulations; it makes business-sense. But when revenues of close to $1 billion are pitted against journalistic freedom and the ability to hold an autocratic regime to account, as in Vietnam last year where Facebook agreed to the government’s behest that they restrict the accounts of political dissidents and journalists, principals don’t seem quite so attractive.
Big tech companies are intent on setting their own rules, which they do not mind breaking. Facebook’s newly revealed Oversight Board promises “to promote free expression by making principled, independent decisions regarding content on Facebook and Instagram”, reviewing whether decisions by monitoring within Facebook are “in accordance with Facebook’s stated values and policies”. The problem is that, thanks to examples such as Facebook’s conduct in Vietnam, the impact of words such as “principled” and “values” has been diluted. If these “values” matter so little to Facebook then they are no rubric by which social media content should be judged.
The jury on the Oversight Board is still out, as it is with Twitter’s new ‘Birdwatch’ feature, a wikipedia-like approach to moderation that hopes community consensus can be used to weed out misinformation. The impressive figures on the Board, including our own Alan Rusbridger, give confidence, but the fear is that they will do little more than lend credibility to a body charged with keeping the gates of social media, a role it cannot and should not be expected to fill. More worrying still is that the self-professed independence of the Board is ambiguous. The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a shadow group founded by journalists to scrutinise Facebook’s self-regulating, found its website taken down as a result of a notice from the company and their funders ‘harangued’ by Facebook. If Facebook were happy with independent overseers, why would they intimidate such a group? What these developments do demonstrate, however, is a growing recognition in Silicon Valley board rooms that passivity on internet regulation is no longer an option, yet drawing a line on what exactly counts as ‘hate speech’ or ‘dehumanizing language’ has not become any clearer. It is still difficult to imagine Facebook or Twitter intervening to censor figures like J. K Rowling, widely accused of transphobia, or Darren Grimes, the far-right influencer who dresses his latent xenophobia in the garb of a free speech warrior.
In a world where users are commodities and their eyeballs are for sale, as Netflix’s The Social Dilemma so plainly describes, the pretence that social media companies place people over profit must be abandoned. It is widely known that the content users see is manipulated and their data commodified. Yet, due to the ubiquity of social media in modern life, for many people these platforms are indispensable. We are in a gilded cage, trapped in an algorithmically-contrived net crafted to keep us hooked rather than informed, giving us more and more of the content we want even when it might not be good for us. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated, social media platforms have the power to shape our political views; in effect selling off our vote to the highest bidder. How free is that?
So, would a social media that eschews engagement-driven algorithms and promises to protect freedom of speech at all costs be a better alternative? Thankfully, Parler exists to inform us that the answer is no. Founded on these principles, the site was, when operational, a haven for the alt-right. It finds support from such esteemed commentators as Glenn Greenwald, known for publishing the files leaked by Edward Snowden, who paints the site as a free and truly liberal counterpoint to censorious Silicon Valley. However, through his support, Greenwald embodies the very “dude-bro” sentiment that rather pompously declares that this whole freedom of speech malarkey can be solved easily with a reference to Voltaire, who famously informed an adversary “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (without realising that there is quite famously no such attributable quote to the Frenchman). Speech does not occur in a vacuum and, as Trump demonstrated in the lead up to events at the Capitol, it can have horrifying real-world effects.
One valuable lesson that can be taken from the Parler affair is its demise. The decision of Google, Apple, and Amazon to banish the site from its platforms was another reminder of the frightening extent of Big Tech’s monopolistic power. Progressive commentators and politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should not be celebrating the Parler blackout, they should be uncomfortable with the manner of the silencing of Trump. The concentration of power amongst a smaller and smaller group of people is anathema to the values of the left.
Instead, attention should now be focused on the development of truly independent and powerful bodies, backed up by legislation, to hold Big Tech to account. The growing clamour for antitrust action, as well as the example set by Australia in standing up to Google’s threat of pulling its services from the country, show that the omnipotence of these companies can be threatened. Social media companies’ performative manoeuvres should not be allowed to disguise their flaws. We must wrest back control of the internet so that incidents such as the silencing of Donald Trump can be enjoyed, not mired in suspicion.