by Daphna Whitmore
Twitter and Facebook shutting down Trump’s accounts after his supporters stormed Capitol Hill is old news now but the debates continue over whether the actions against Trump are a good thing or not. Those in favour of banning Trump say Twitter and Facebook are private companies and are within their rights. As one trade union official put it, “there is no obligation on any internet service provider or tech company to set up or host a platform which spreads lies, hate speech, calls for insurrection. It is not a free speech issue.”
This defence of the property rights of corporates is being made by people on the authoritarian left. “If you don’t like it you can go elsewhere” is their message. Tens of thousands of accounts were shut down in the days following Trump’s ban. Yet when people did move to Parler that platform was taken from app stores. Then Amazon switched off Parler’s servers making it inaccessible on the internet. Now the censorious complain about Parler going to a Russian web hosting company.
The tech giants currently have unaccountable power. The question is not so much about Trump – who with his 87 million followers was very lucrative for Twitter – but more about the rights of private citizens to what is essentially the public square today.
There are people saying: too bad, if you are banned from platforms this does not violate your freedom of speech, you still can give out leaflets, put up posters, use a loud hailer and hold meetings. It’s just less convenient, that’s all. Well it is more than inconvenient, it is rather like telling people they can ride horses and write letters with quill pens, as one defender of free speech pointed out in a discussion forum. As he noted, the fact old school methods of communicating were suggested showed just how much of a curtailment to free speech a big tech/social ban is.
The left should have the sense to realise that the wind can change and the fire can quickly head their way. It is already happening. Twitter has been shutting down leftist women for some years. Feminist journalist Meghan Murphy is a case in point being issued a lifetime ban from Twitter in 2018 for using male pronouns for a trans-identified male who was suing female beauticians for not waxing his testicles. At the time Yaniv went by the name Jonathan and used male pronouns, so the banning was doubly absurd. As a freelance writer, Murphy relies on social media platforms to share stories and publicise her work and the ban affected her ability to work.
The authoritarian left’s passion for closing down what they deem offensive speech tends to be selective. When hundreds of abusive tweets threatening rape and violence were hurled at J.K. Rowling the left authoritarians said nothing. They have generally been unwilling to voice criticism of the ongoing misogynistic abuse of gender-critical feminists.
Leaving the power to decide what is acceptable speech in the hands of the corporates and the state runs counter to a genuine left position. Free speech is the cause of the left, although it is hard to see that now because so many on the left are happy for big tech and the state to wield control. Historically free speech was a left issue because the right was never constrained. The right has always owned the press and other media platforms. For the first time in history the masses have a platform through social media. As the class which has suffered the most from anti-democratic restrictions on movement, assembly, speech and other basic rights, the working class has a vested interest in fighting for the widest democracy possible.