So now we know what it takes for Facebook and Twitter to cut off Trump: an angry mob storming the United States Capitol. Before today, these companies had overlooked a lot. Consistent racism? Sad, but he’s a public figure. Lies and conspiracies? If people didn’t want them, they wouldn’t engage. Regular celebration of violence? Hyperbole and posturing, no doubt.
But as four years of presidential incitement reached their predictable end on the Capitol grounds, NOW they’ll step in and freeze his accounts for a few hours. Sure, they’d fact-checked a handful of posts in the past and put warnings on others, but in the main they allowed a powerful man to yell “FIRE” in a crowded theater and did little but cluck about it.
I’m as close to a free-speech purist as you’re likely to find. I usually think the best answer to bad speech is more speech. But when the platforms’ own algorithms lead us to lies as a matter of course, better speech simply can’t compete. The logic that favors engagement over accuracy will always reward the most extreme among us, since they can slip the constraints of fact and loose their fantasies on the gullible and confused.
Facebook bears a particular stain for the horrors it has abetted around the world, with a leadership blinded by the techno-utopian dream that connecting people can only lead to good. Guess what: People can use your tools to organize a pogrom or a coup d’état as easily as a happy hour. But for Trump, Twitter provided the most direct route to our collective id, his bile always amplified by those happy to profit from the outrage he stokes.
The social platforms’ response to the pollution of our discourse? Ban political advertising or make us jump through hoops to do it, which is like putting a band-aid on a scratch while you bleed to death from an amputated limb. I do not want to ban speech. I do not want to make social media companies liable for every word and or video someone might post. But watching these companies’ sudden shock SHOCK! at the eminently predictable results of Trump’s lies disgusts me. Where were you guys when we needed you?
Photo: A lit fuse, via Wikipedia.