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Big Tech’s Control of the Public Sphere Should Worry Us All

Many on the Left celebrated the suspension of Donald Trump's Twitter account – but behind the decision lies a nexus of unaccountable power that threatens socialists as much as it does the far-right.

On Friday 8 January, the Twitter Safety account, responsible for communicating Twitter’s regulations around safety and cybersecurity, announced that it had permanently suspended President Donald Trump’s account ‘due to the risk of further incitement of violence.’ This decision was portended by a 12 hour temporary suspension and the removal of three of Trump’s tweets which were interpreted as supporting the riot following the storming of the US Capitol, which drew headlines across the world. 

As expected, digital celebrations of Trump’s permanent suspension soon commenced. The more grounded may be under no illusion that this obliteration of Trump’s main line of communication is the dénouement of Trumpism, but for many the schadenfreude of this moment was fortifying and comic.

For others, however, Trump’s Twitter ban was met with scepticism and caution. Certainly, the argument for closing Trump’s account was plausible – not only because his social media activity was demonstratively linked to physical violence from the alt-right movement, but also, as Sarah Manavis writes in New Statesman, ‘through Trump, this movement [the alt-right] found a viable mascot, and through his Twitter account, the perfect megaphone to shift niche ideas into the mainstream.’

But many questions and concerns have persisted which are threaded around the incoherence and opacity of Twitter’s regulation process, as well as Big Tech’s monopoly over the most popular means of communication. A primary question is why Twitter has suspended Trump’s account on the grounds of him inciting violence now, and not at earlier opportunities when his tweets were even more explicit. On May 29, 2020, the President tweeted ‘…These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen… Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.’ Many have been quick to draw attention to this and other tweets more directly calling for violence or enabling white supremacist ideology.

It is, therefore, difficult to countenance the idea that Twitter levelled this permanent suspension by simply following its own guidelines – rather, it appears that Democratic control of the Senate has made Big Tech anxious about regulation and sanction. Indeed, Clint Watts tweeted: ‘As you watch Twitter ban Trump, Facebook turning on Trump, and Apple warning Parler for not moderating, that is not because of the Capitol insurrection as much as two Senators winning the runoff in GA.’ The fact is, the suspension theatre we’re now witnessing—with more and more social media companies, including Snapchat and Pinterest, rushing to declare that they have banned Trump—seems beholden to political consequence rather than moral duty.

There’s the greater question, also, of how much power over political communication we have ceded to the hegemony of Silicon Valley. Twitter operates as a kind of pseudo-public sphere. While it is the closest platform we have to an open, borderless realm of mass communication, it is ultimately governed by tech bros who are unelected, unelectable, and unaccountable. 

The arbitrary nature of Trump’s suspension exposes the reality that this sphere we seemingly freely communicate in is, in fact, little more than a Silicon Valley corporate fiefdom where the rules and features, even if restrained by light-touch government regulation, are difficult for the public to influence. 

Concerns about the opacity and inconsistency of social media companies were prominent during the presidential election itself, when Twitter lifted a sharing restriction from a false New York Post story concerning Hunter Biden, without any clear indication as to why it had rowed back on its decision. If tech companies are seemingly so able to bow to political pressure or the current ideological balance of state power, how can the public trust that its applications of censorship and regulation are being made in the interests of the common good?

There is also the problem that Trump’s censorship is enormously consequential. Twitter is the President’s primary method of communication. While it is undeniable that his platform has facilitated a ‘broad coalition of QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boy militia members, [and] MAGA diehards’, particularly in his refusal to officially concede the 2020 election, it means that his conduct in the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration and post-presidency will lack transparency. In fact, his statements—rather than being accessible to millions—will likely be driven to more obscure corners of the internet, where it might not be clear the damage they are doing.

Equally, the tweets from his account should likely have been protected for the purpose of maintaining a public record. While his official @POTUS twitter account will still likely be archived as @POTUS45 in the same manner as @POTUS44, the successful lawsuits brought against the President for blocking people from his Twitter account on the grounds that it amounts to a First Amendment violation give credence to the idea that Trump’s personal account should be treated as the official account of his elected office.

But more than this, the capacity for Big Tech to make such consequential decisions for the public sphere without democratic accountability is troubling. Many have ridiculed the anxiety some have expressed that if Trump can be suspended, any left-wing account can be. They rightly argue that left-wing accounts have been suspended regardless of Trump, and that instead of demanding that Twitter give oxygen to fascists for the sake of not being hoisted by our own petard, we should be looking to build alternative, radical platforms. 

But we cannot overlook the monopoly control a select number of tech companies have over the public sphere, and the concern which these unpredictable and insufficiently justified arbitrations can cause. In fact, few things make the case for socialised, publicly-owned digital platforms more clearly. And it’s not only on these grounds that such a case can be made – as tech writer Evgeny Morozov has argued, the ability of social media giants to collate huge amounts of data about the public without adequate oversight also makes the case for democratic ownership.

Some have argued that Twitter’s move to suspend Trump itself is in fact due to a more overlooked story of worker organisation in the company, which is influencing those at the senior levels. In the hours preceding Trump’s suspension, hundreds of Twitter employees signed a petition calling for Trump to be permanently banned from the platform. 

But it is surely naïve to think that this revolt from employees will have had much more than marginal influence. And even if Twitter was a worker-owned co-operative, the problem of arbitrary applications of regulations and suspensions would persist. Twitter has elevated itself beyond a sectional concern. It is now an institution of public status – one could not imagine a prospective president or prime minister expecting to win an election without a Twitter account, for instance. 

Twitter is a channel through which politicians communicate with their constituents, news organisations break major stories, and political groups across the spectrum conduct organising. As such, the rules which govern Twitter are of public interest, not just the interest of those who own the company, or work for the company. If we accept this worker-organised model of influence for Big Tech, we risk scenarios where these companies are staffed by workers who are sympathetic to anti-democratic interests, such as the far-right. 

Those same Twitter workers could, in another world, have been lobbying their company not to suspend far-right accounts engaged in abusive behaviour, or even demanded that the company change its algorithms to prioritise right-wing content, thus enabling a significant shift in public thinking. Evidently, in this case, there is a public interest in having an open and democratic means for determining how Twitter operates its regulations and restrictions – one which extends not just to tech workers but to every worker in society.

Twitter is privately owned but plays a key role in shaping public opinion. It is the international ekklesia, participation in which, alongside other social media, could even be considered a human right. We cannot simply depend on Big Tech’s business model applying pressure at sporadic junctures of controversy, such as the Capitol Hill riot – this is too beholden to political and oligarchic power, as opposed to common or collective interest. 

Further, the lack of accountability Twitter has to the public can be set within a broader media ecosystem. Algorithms amplify extreme, malicious and false content within social media bubbles, and local newspapers with objective and accountable reporting are in rapid decline in the US and UK, replaced by increasingly polarised news broadcasts with discrete political stances – a process which will soon accelerate in Britain with the introduction of Rupert Murdoch’s imminent News UK TV channel

The persistence of these models of information communication, dominated by the political compasses of individual billionaires, represents a crisis for the public sphere. The solution is not to hand Big Tech greater powers to police and curtail – regardless of the particularities of the Trump case. It is time for a much broader conversation in society about how we can build platforms for popular communication which are accountable to the public, owned democratically and transparent in their processes. Improving the system by which information is distributed across our society has ramifications which extend far beyond the end of the Trump presidency.