In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Capitol Building on the 6th of Jan 2021, multiple companies either severed their business relationships with Trump’s organizations or banned him on their platforms altogether. Different views arose. Some agreed that Trump was too radioactive and too harmful. His supports protested the backlash levied on their hero. Others pondered whether some companies like Twitter and Facebook should have the power to ban even the President of the United States.
It has been a week since that happened and I thought a lot about two things. The first is the famous line that Spider Man’s uncle told him: with great power come great responsibilities. The other is this clip:
If you’re not a Marvel fan, this is the scene where the superheroes debated whether they should be put under guidance and supervision by a panel, instead of making their own choices. Some led by Tony Stark thought they should be, while others led by Captain America disagreed, saying that the panel would be run by people with agendas and agendas change. Cap reasoned that surrendering their right to choose and submitting to people’s agendas, especially with their superhero power was too big a risk.
There are multiple issues here. First, think about what Captain America said about agendas and what happens in real life. The legislative and judicial systems are supposed to be there to rein in the Executive Branch, especially the President. What has happened in the last 4 years is nothing but that. The Republican officials in Congress did Trump’s bidding and closed their eyes on the crimes and misdemeanor that he has committed. Why? Because they follow their own agendas and want to stay in power. Angering Trump will provoke him to turn on them and tell his supporters to remove the dissenters from office. What is supposed to supervision and a check against balance becomes gas to the fuel.
Some argued that powerful platforms should be supervised by a committee or panel of experts or regulated by the government. Either option is run by people with agendas and like Cap said, agendas change. What if the government doesn’t like criticisms made on a government-controlled Facebook and decides to ask the company to censor them? What if the politicians and the powerful work behind the scenes to install friendly faces on the supervising panel/committee? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter have superpower heroes. Used the right way, they can further the society’s interests. Used the wrong way, they can be very harmful weapons.
But should these companies have that much unchecked power at their disposal? Let’s talk about the accusation that they censor content on their platforms. The extreme case first. Trump is the President of the United States. As long as he has something to say, media outlets all over the world will likely broadcast it, even when it is an outrageous claim. He can have a press conference, a rally or he can call in right-wing media which also has significant reach to broadcast his messages. Being banned on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t amount to a complete censor. He was banned because he repeatedly violated the terms of services written and imposed by private entities; which gives them the right to act like they did. Had he not pushed the envelope too far like when he incited violence on the 6th of Jan 2021, he wouldn’t have been banned. Two months after the election, he repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the election, yet the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t ban him. That should be the evidence that if anyone is to blame for Trump not being on Twitter or Facebook, it will be him and him alone.
The same goes for other users. These social media platforms want and need you to engage with their platforms so that they can bring in valuable ads dollars. If you don’t commit grave offenses that warrant a ban, there is economic benefit to these platforms to ban and purge you without a legitimate reason. What’s the point of building a platform and acquiring users without wanting to keep them? Plus, the Internet allows anyone to broadcast his or her opinion in multiple ways. Banned on Twitter? Try Facebook. Banned on Facebook? Try Snapchat. Banned on Snapchat? Try writing an op-ed to a newspaper and getting it published. That doesn’t work either? Try having a blog and advertising it. Want to get the message out in person? Try having a small rally or a speech at a market.
Social media platforms connect people, including the good guys and the deplorable. They are also essentially megaphones that send wide and far well-intentioned messages or on the opposite, purely harmful agendas. A knife is a great cooking tool, but in the hands of a criminal, it’s a weapon that can take one’s life. How social media are used hinges much on the users. Since it’s practically impossible to prevent the extreme or the propagandists, the platforms have to take up the responsibility to ensure their platforms do more good than harm.
As private entities, these companies have agendas. The people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and their confidants have agendas. If they were just “normal” folks, their ethics would affect only themselves and those around them. However, because they are vested with immense power, the importance of their own ethics is amplified so that they can wield the power responsibly. Their ethical compass will dictate what their agendas are and whether the greater goods look like. As to what can be the fail-safe/safeguard against these powerful individuals, I would argue that it would be competition. Powerful as politicians in the US are, they listen to their donors which, in turn, listen to their customers to some extent because of the risk that customers will flock to their competitors. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack last week, big companies and political donors decided to stay away from Trump and some halted their political donors to those that voted against the certification of the election. That should have a sway on the elected officials’ mind, whether they publicly take action or not. Moreover, Whatsapp delayed the rollout of their new privacy terms which would make it easier for them to share data with Facebook because users protested and flocked to rival apps such as Signal. Without competition and action by users, such a reversal wouldn’t happen. Powerful as Facebook is, they are not immune to the threat from competition.
I don’t claim to know how to encourage healthy competition in the market. I refer it to the people whose full-time job is to make laws. What I am trying to say is that between encouraging competition and creating an oversight that can be tainted by personal agendas, I would prefer the former. I don’t know about you, but my experience in Vietnam the US so far hasn’t given me much confidence in the latter.