This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.
The era of free speech online is over. The indefinite suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter account, following his suspension from Facebook, is a profound moment from which there is no going back. The tech giants have essentially asserted their right to police democratic politics, even to censor democratically elected presidents, depriving Trump of the primary means by which he addresses the American public.
Political debate online will now be firmly subject to the whims and prejudices of unaccountable billionaires. And this is being cheered by people who call themselves liberal.
The obviously odious things Trump has said and done in recent days are beside the point. This incursion of Big Tech into politics will cast a longer shadow over democracy than he or those loons who stormed the Capitol ever could.
Those saying that this isn’t a free-speech issue, that Trump has been inciting violence and insurrection and so has crossed a line, should read the rationale Twitter has published. It cites two Trump tweets: one praising the “75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me” and another announcing that he would not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration. This, the rationale says, is inciting violence.
The mental gymnastics on display are heroic. The reference to “American patriots”, Twitter says, is “being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts” — even though he was clearly referring to all his voters. Trump says he will skip the inauguration, it goes on, may “serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending”.
Here Twitter bigwigs seem to have acquired the ability to read not only Trump’s mind but also those of his nearly 89 million followers, divining cryptic calls to arms.
Twitter and Facebook were clearly just looking for excuses to ban Trump for good, under pressure from their own staff and a chorus of illiberal liberals who now are saying it should have been done years ago.
Big Tech censorship is nothing new. In recent years, social media firms have tightened the bounds of acceptable thought and speech under the guise of tackling hate speech and misinformation. This purge has swept up not just the Tommy Robinsons and David Ickes of this world, but also broadcasters that question lockdown and feminists concerned about the excesses of trans politics. But with the Trump ban, the Rubicon has well and truly been crossed.
For years, Twitter and Facebook have resisted demands to delete Trump’s tweets or suspend his account, given that he is the leader of the US and people probably should know what he’s getting up to. In the past year, Trump has had his posts about Covid, voter fraud and Black Lives Matter protests slapped with warning labels and fact-checks. But until now Twitter and Facebook were hesitant to suspend him.
That Big Tech has decided to move before Trump is even out of office sets a terrifying precedent. Silicon Valley believes it has the right to stand between a president and his people. And if the American president can be censored, it really can happen to anyone.
Those saying this isn’t censorship because Twitter and Facebook are private companies are unconvincing, not least because many of those levelling this staunch defence of billionaires’ rights are on the left. The tech oligarchs essentially own the digital public square.
Worse, they are now trying to bring to heel companies that have tried to launch alternatives. Parler — a free-speech alternative to Twitter — has just been suspended from Google’s app store. And Apple has said it will do the same unless Parler introduces content-moderation policies.
This will not end with Trump. In the name of felling one right-wing authoritarian, liberals have ushered in a genuine tyranny.
Tom Slater is deputy editor of Spiked Magazine.
Join the conversation on the RUA forums: 1984 Style Tech Takeover? Twitter & FB Ban Trump. Apple & Google Remove Parler.