Trump’s enduring legacy for freedom on the web

In Portable’s first post of the year, our CEO, Andrew Apostola, reflects on the unsettling events which took place at the US Capitol last week and potential demise of a free internet.

Last week we witnessed the introduction of a new era of politics in America, a polity without Trump, as protagonist in chief, sitting in the pulpit of American power, but one where his way of thinking and communicating still holds considerable sway over the agenda of millions of American people. The exact way in which Trump has this conversation now and into the future, regardless of the messages broadcast, is one of the most interesting considerations to pick apart coming into 2021, if not for this coming decade. 

We can talk about the sequencing of events that played out in the Capitol and all of the rights and wrongs that Republican legislators and supporters of the Trump agenda committed, but for myself personally, I believe we can leave that to the political commentators to pick apart, judge and condemn. There’s more than enough qualified journalists in the press galleries of Washington and Canberra to take apart and put together what has happened in the context of Trump’ presidency and history over the past two hundred years. 

In our sphere of the world, a world that looks through the lens of technology, the internet and the ethics we seek to navigate, a much grander narrative has played out that warrants a close reading and close commentary.  What has happened over the past week has fundamentally shifted the role of technology companies and displaced past notions of what it means to exist on the web, on a server, in an app store, as a platform. There is no doubt that Twitter and Facebook made the right call, given the circumstances and the situation they found themselves in. The actions of Apple, Amazon, Google and Stripe are more questionable and challenge the foundational assumptions of a free internet. Was this change swift? Or has it been an elongated, drawn-out slide towards an endpoint, one that reveals the one and true reality of any publishing platform existing in the free space of the internet?

What I am talking about specifically, is the decision by the major platforms to first take down content, then suspend or silence the voice of Trump, as an elected official, on the internet. Twitter on Friday banned President Donald Trump from the platform, permanently, citing the “risk of further incitement of violence.” In the past week the platform has dropped over 10% of its value, around $2.5 USD billion.

In a post on its blog, Twitter outlined:

“We assessed the two Tweets referenced above under our Glorification of Violence policy, which aims to prevent the glorification of violence that could inspire others to replicate violent acts and determined that they were highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.”

At Facebook, Trump has been prevented from using his account until at least after Joe Biden becomes president on Jan. 20, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying:

“Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.

We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.”

Twitter has been spoken about by commentators as being Trump’s main platform for connecting with his supporters, it gets an oversized part of the attention from the media in my view. The reality is that Facebook has provided a much more accessible and fertile ground for communication and organising supporters, through the functionality of the platform itself, along with its reach. The decision by both of these platforms to sensor Trump has greatly limited Trump’s ability to connect with his supporters, and fundamentally changed the relationship between citizens and social media as a technology. Here we have two platforms and two corporations that have decimated traditional media this century, owned by the public and led by unelected officials, take unilateral decisions to remove all speech, not just questionable, ugly or harmful but all conversation from their platforms. 

Why now Facebook and Twitter? One can only speculate that perhaps the leadership at these firms see the imminent departure of Trump from office as creating a low-risk environment to finally find a voice. He’s gone in two weeks, let’s show all of those critics that we don’t care about dollars, but ethics! He can do less harm to us from the outside. I liken it to retiring or final term Republicans like former Senator Jeff Flake firing off Trump missives in the twilight of his tenure. It’s considerably easier (still difficult, but easier) to find your voice when self-interest is in the rear view mirror.  

There have been many moments, including the incitement of protesters in Charlottesville in August, 2017 where Trump has played to the worst instincts of his supporters. But what about all of the other dog-whistling politicians across the free and not so free world? What now? Should we expect this level of policing in every corner of the globe where advertisers pay for impressions and add to carts at Facebook? Does Mark Zuckerberg have a position on demagogues, small-time and major league in the provinces of Indonesia? In the Philippines? In Africa? Unfortunately, the only lines we are seeing drawn here are in America, and whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing for society, is something that will play out in the months and years ahead. 

I believe that these platforms are writing the rule book as they go now, after years of riding the good will that we as the public had entrusted in them as they smashed the stranglehold traditional media entities had on us for generations. They are being dragged into acting in this debate at the wrong time and setting up challenging precedents. A line has been drawn, enveloped in the murky depths of public-political discourse, that says an elected official can be silenced — disconnected from their audience — if they step too far in one direction, but more bleakly if their supporters misstep on State property. Yes, Trump is a reckless idiot for setting up a scene of protest, that resulted in violence, destruction and death. But most counter political narratives end up on the steps of Congress or Parliament or the Ministry of Defence. Agree or disagree with the merit or veracity of these voices, left or right, where do they go to organise in a world where political activism is not coordinated entirely online?

Given what has happened, what role does tech now have in shaping our politics, our worlds, what we can see, what is advertised to us, what we seek to share? What responsibilities do technology companies have to moderate and how do they know when to draw a line and intervene in the politics of a nation? What place is there for alternative narratives in the free world of the internet?

Joel Schwartz, the CEO of Parler, a social media app not dissimilar to Facebook with 12 million users and used increasingly by right-wing groups to communicate and organise, was interviewed by Kara Swisher of the New York Times, the night of the insurrection in Washington. The question that was put to him, in summary, was why does Parler exist as a place for these views and why hasn’t it blocked Trump’s voice like all of the other social media platforms?

Joel Schwartz's view is that the role of social media, or the town square, is a place where multiple voices co-exist, and it’s up to our leaders to help shape discourse, instead of intervening in the functions of civil discourse: 

“I think that you have a few options. One is where you can be proactively monitoring and spying people and surveilling them [users of social media platforms], which some platforms have decided to do to some extent, although most surveillance is limited to capturing data about people in order to sell products and manipulate them, but nobody has done the surveillance thing to stifle speech. You have 12m-13m people on Parler for example and you can’t watch them all of them are doing, and I don’t think it’s our obligation to, society needs to work together in a democracy to get through things like this.” 

In Schwartz’s view, social media needs to provide a place for conversation, within the bounds of the law, not partisan opinion. It’s up to our leaders and officials to enter these spheres of public conversation and participate in the debate, lest the conversation moves to other harder to reach platforms. As a small, new platform, less than three years old, content that is flagged is moderated by a panel of five users, randomly drawn from a pool of over 2,000 volunteers. It’s hardly as sophisticated as Facebook’s twenty thousand strong paid moderators that exist in 2021. But do a historical comparison and you’ll see that Facebook’s thinking and execution on moderation is relatively nascent. Back in May 2017 — thirteen years after its launch — Facebook had over 2 billion users but only 4,000 moderators. If antitrust lobbyists are concerned about competition and the power of the major tech firms, then surely a lens needs to be taken towards the actions taken by big tech in the context of emerging competitors. 

On Saturday morning the 9th of January, Parler was the number one listed free app in the Apple App store. By Sunday, it was nowhere to be seen on the Apple App Store or Google Play. Amazon, who had hosted the app through its AWS platform, which is used by technology companies and governments around the world, terminated service of Parlour, effectively rendering the platform unusable on the internet. Parler filed an emergency lawsuit to stop AWS from pulling the plug on Parler, in which it points out the impossible position Amazon now will find itself in. On Friday night, according to the Daily News, the number one trending post of Twitter was “Hang Mike Pence”. Twitter is also hosted partially by AWS and no doubt similar content is being captured, retweeted and shared on the platform, days after the suspension of Trump’s account. 

On Sunday the 10th, Stripe, which processes millions payments across the globe and one of Silicon Valley’s darling fintech companies, announced that it would be suspending payments to Trump’s campaign account, disabling individuals from making donations. According to the Washington Post, Stripe believes that Trump had breached its terms of use and suspended the account. I’ve spent the past few days pondering if the Bank of America or the Commonwealth Bank of Australia were to unilaterally suspend commerce of a political party or activist group. Yes Trump actions incited an angry group of protestors to breach a public institution, but I can easily see situations where democratic uprisings turn ugly. Blocking access is the easy, knee jerk reaction, which will be replicated elsewhere in the world and put platforms large and small in challenging ethical situations.  

Again, it’s important to note that all of these companies were acting in a new set of circumstances and looking at events as they unfolded, listening to employees and users and determining the role that they should play. Yet Joel Schwartz’s points to the dilemma these companies will come to face in the coming decade.

“Whether or not it’s Parler, it’s Twitter, it’s Facebook, it’s Google, it’s Telegram, it’s WhatsApp, whatever it might be, you can’t stop people and change their opinions by force, by censoring them, they will just go somewhere else and do it, so as long as it’s legal, it’s allowed.”

No doubt for many, including big tech, a line has been overstepped. But I believe that each of these companies have been sleepwalking us towards this point for some time and have acted in a self-serving way that doesn’t equally distribute the safeguards and freedoms they have imposed to all users and all regions of the globe. Not so long ago, although it seems like eons, net neutrality was the dominant issue of the day, with the tech sector worried about the impact of a two-lane internet highway on society.

Today, I fear that we’re seeing the beginning stages of the balkanisation of the internet and an uneven distribution of democratic intervention that favors those with the loudest voices and those who are lucky enough to already have the gift of liberal and democratic institutions protecting civil society. 

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