Why Big Tech and Conservatives Are Clashing on Free Speech

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When Twitter banned President Donald Trump after a mob he had encouraged stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the White House fell into an unusual social media silence. But the company’s move, followed by actions by Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon to cut off individual users or social media platforms they saw as inciting violence, turned a long-simmering feud with conservatives into a full-throated battle. Trump supporters complained their free speech rights were being curtailed, but many liberals applauded what they saw as overdue steps to limit misinformation and prevent bloodshed.

1. Who’s blocking who?

Some individual users on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are being blocked, the most high-profile, of course, being Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter handle, with 88 million followers. Trump was permanently banned on Jan. 8, “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” according to the company. Facebook (and Instagram, which it owns) have suspended Trump until at least the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, arguing Trump intended to use his time left in office to undermine the peaceful transition of power. Other tech companies also took action.

2. Which companies are involved?

Apple and Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., closed their online stores to an app they saw as containing content that may have stoked the riots in the Capitol: Parler, a social media network that gained traction last fall among conservatives who complained of censorship elsewhere, had its app pulled from the iPhone App Store and Google Play, making it almost impossible to download the service to a mobile device. Amazon Web Services also cut Parler’s access to the servers that had hosted the site on Jan. 11, saying it wouldn’t provide services to “a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence.” Parler, which said it was not able to immediately find another web hosting company willing to accept it, filed an antitrust suit against Amazon in an effort to force it to restore service.

3. What was the reaction?

Trump, who was briefly able to keep tweeting under the @POTUS handle before Twitter cut that off, charged that Twitter had coordinated with rivals in the Democratic Party to silence him. That post has since been removed. His son, Donald Trump Jr., claimed that the companies were violating their rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment protects against government-imposed restrictions on speech but leaves private companies free to regulate speech within their businesses as they see fit. Legal experts said that Twitter, Facebook, Amazon and the others were within their rights to enforce their terms of service on users. In Europe, some leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Twitter’s actions, saying lawmakers -- not tech companies -- should set free speech policy. In Europe, the scars of Nazi rule and the propaganda that helped create it have made government officials more willing to set rules against hateful content.

4. How did we get here?

The presidential election of 2016, in which Trump wielded Twitter as a megaphone and groups tied to Russia posted disinformation on Facebook, led to a torrent of criticism of social media companies and forced them to rethink what many saw as “anything goes” policies for politicians. But relatively little changed until recently, as both platforms argued that what a president said was too important to be restricted. In May 2020, Twitter first added a fact-check label to two Trump tweets that made unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting. Those were followed by a rule-violation notice on another May tweet by Trump warning police-brutality protesters in Minnesota that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

5. What have they done about other users?

Until the 2020 campaign, platforms like Facebook had done relatively little about misinformation or other posts likely to cause “real world” harm. This was apparent last summer in the case of users who called themselves the “Kenosha Guard.” They used a Facebook Group to encourage citizens to take weapons to Kenosha, Wisconsin, amid protests over the police shooting of a Black man. It was eventually taken down, but even Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said the company was too slow to remove a page that violated its policy on dangerous organizations. Two people were killed and a third was injured at the protests, allegedly by a teenager who had been drawn to the scene by the Facebook page.

6. How has the conflict with conservatives escalated?

After Twitter first labeled those tweets by President Trump in May, he responded with an executive order aimed at “preventing online censorship.” Trump also demanded the revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision that shields internet companies from liability for most of the material their users post. Section 230 also provides legal immunity concerning “any action voluntarily taken in good faith” to remove materials from their platforms. Additionally, Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey were called before the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall to defend against charges of silencing conservative voices -- most notably in reaction to the platforms’ handling of a New York Post article on Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son. Twitter and Facebook had curbed the spread of the piece by placing restrictions on sharing the link and putting a warning notice before linking to the article amid uncertainty over the veracity of the report’s claims. Trump vetoed a defense spending bill in part because it did not get rid of Section 230, although his veto was overridden by Congress.

7. What’s the upshot of all this?

It’s too soon to tell, but there are some signs that conservative voices and users of Parler are moving to other platforms. Brian Krebs, a technology blogger, said that a number of people he followed seemed to be moving to Signal, an encrypted messaging service, while a group put up a page called Parler Lifeboat on the encrypted messaging app Telegram as a place for discussions to run temporarily. That raised concerns that more extreme voices might be pushed further toward the fringes of the internet, including the so-called dark web, where activity is largely untraceable and anonymous.

The Reference Shelf

  • Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about suspending Trump from Facebook and Instagram.
  • Twitter’s statement about its permanent ban on Trump.
  • A QuickTake about complaints from politicians about Twitter and Facebook.
  • A QuickTake on Section 230, the legal provision protecting internet companies from most liability over user-generated content.

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