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Why platforms had to cut off Trump and Parler

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Last week’s deplatforming isn’t as unprecedented as it looks

US capitol

Last week saw unprecedented mob violence in our nation’s capital and a huge shift in the internet’s relationship with President Donald Trump. Major sites like Facebook and Twitter, which excused harassment and outright threats from the president for years, banned him in a matter of days. The social network Parler, a home for Trump supporters too extreme for those big networks, was banned from Apple and Google’s App Stores and then by Amazon’s hosting services. As of this morning, the network cannot be accessed in any way.

Skeptics have called the deplatforming a “censorship orgy” or a move to “one-party control of information distribution.” One pundit argued that “big tech has the power to utterly erase you from modern existence” — a strange claim after an attack that resulted in several deaths. Faced with a mass raid on the Capitol, many have instead launched an alternate conversation about the role of platforms in moderating speech.

There are real reasons to be worried about the power of speech platforms like Facebook and particularly infrastructure providers like Amazon. But it’s not true that last week’s actions were unprecedented, and it doesn’t make sense to characterize them as some kind of Stalinist purge. Instead, they are simply a desperate response to a desperate situation — the best option in the face of widespread failures of American government. This kind of mass deplatforming is a last resort. But after one of the most violent and alarming weeks in recent history, it’s a justified one.

First, we should acknowledge the scale of the destruction that platforms are responding to. Six people are dead, and there is real and sustained concern that there will be further violence between now and Inauguration Day. Many of the perpetrators have been apprehended, but nowhere near the entire 8,000 who reportedly participated in the assault. Trump has scheduled another rally at Alamo, Texas, later this week, and the conditions that produced the Capitol raid are still very much in effect. There is no reason all of this could not happen again in the immediate future.

If you want to argue that platforms are overreacting, then it matters what they’re reacting to. The moderation actions of the past week came in response to an immediate deadly attack on the seat of government and an ongoing threat of seditious violence. You can argue that the moderation was poorly targeted or insufficiently explained, but it was entirely proportional to the scale of the threat. Facebook and Twitter’s response is no more extreme than declaring a 15-day state of emergency or mobilizing the National Guard. This is an emergency situation, and it calls for decisive action — from platforms every bit as much as law enforcement. This, for better or worse, is what decisive platform action looks like.

The other concern is that the recent actions will set a bad precedent — but the principles here have been in place for some time. As Jillian York points out, platforms have always reserved the right to take down speech that poses an immediate risk of violence, and applied the same standards to political figures in foreign countries. You may disagree that Parler was being used to organize sedition, but Amazon’s action is entirely in line with previous moves against 8chan and The Daily Stormer. Platforms haven’t always been clear about spelling this out, but it’s the basic principle at work in both the Trump and Parler deplatformings.

What changed last week weren’t the principles of moderation, but the facts on the ground. On January 5th, platforms could dismiss vague threats against Vice President Mike Pence or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as just overheated rhetoric; today, they have to grapple with a real risk of physical violence and sedition. That’s a horrifying shift, and it’s been difficult for players in every corner of US politics to come to grips with it. But tech companies are responding to that change, not causing it.

That’s not to say the bans have been perfectly implemented. There’s been little to no transparency on which Twitter accounts were taken down and why, and such an accounting might reveal significant missteps by the company. (Among other gripes, there’s no real justification for taking down the Red Scare podcast and not Ayatollah Khamenei.) But these mistakes are minor compared to the severity of the situation. The response shouldn’t be inaction, but the kind of comprehensive notice-and-appeal systems that speech advocates have been pushing for years. We need to make platform moderation systems better, not toss them out entirely.

The actions against Parler have been even thornier. There’s been no meaningful accounting of the threatening content that led Parler to be deplatformed, and users of the site are right to demand a clearer explanation. More troubling, it took place at an infrastructure level, where major companies like Amazon and Google maintain a de facto monopoly — a power that’s much more troubling than Twitter’s power over its own network. Major platforms have always hosted ugly stuff, but they’ve maintained a public commitment to moderating potentially harmful speech — a commitment that Parler has conspicuously avoided. The result was a consistent and public refusal to moderate Stop The Steal activists, which forced Amazon to confront the same ugly choice as Facebook and Twitter before it. Ultimately, the company made the same decision.

At the bottom of it all is the sense that tech companies are leading our response to last week’s horror when it would be better led by elected officials, law enforcement, or even (God help us) the media. Tech companies would certainly agree with this. Facebook and Amazon never set out to be the least-craven institutions in US political discourse, and the moment someone else arrives to take that mantle, they will be thrilled to hand it off.

Unfortunately, we are living through an era of institutional failure. There were many, many chances to avoid what happened last week and many, many failures. We should all hope for a future in which this kind of mass-deplatforming is not necessary and work toward it. In the meantime, we have to deal with the world and the country as it really is.