If your Twitter interaction with President Trump over the past two months was through his official presidential account rather than through his personal account, it was like visiting a rather tranquil alternate reality. No talk of a stolen election. No retweets of QAnon conspiracy theorists. Not a smidgen of chaos to be found. Instead, your timeline was filled with encouraging news about the Operation Warp Speed vaccine program and a cheery video of the national Christmas tree lighting. It was like one of those accounts that only posts positive stories and cute animal pictures.
In other words, you saw the kind of stuff one would expect to see coming from the official feed of the leader of the free world. And certainly, it was that sort of political account that Twitter's terms of service and moderation guidelines, as well as those at other American social media companies, were designed to handle. A maniacal U.S. president trying to overturn an election and perhaps spur an insurrection? Well, that's kind of an unexpected "edge case," you might say. "Before Trump it was entirely reasonable for a social network to presume that they did not need special rules for presidential tweeting, because the norms of the presidency would sufficiently restrain the president on their own," technology analyst Ben Thompson told his newsletter subscribers. "Trump, though, is clearly exceptional."
It's those exceptions — especially when they involve powerful politicians and free speech rights — that make it difficult for companies to write and enforce simple, bright-lined rules. "I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here," wrote Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Wednesday. "We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety." Over at Facebook, the Wall Street Journal reports, executives slowly felt their way forward as the chaos on Capitol Hill unfolded, even as employees clamored for swift action against Trump and his supporters. "You may feel like this is not enough, but it's worth stepping back and remembering that this is truly unprecedented," the company's chief technology officer told staff. "Not sure I know the exact right set of answers but we have been changing and adapting every day — including yesterday."
Except booting Trump off social media and sweeping away the most violent and vitriolic of his followers shouldn't have been hard at all. Terms of service aren't suicide pacts. And the president's reckless behavior was threatening to take the nation further down a dark and dangerous path. What really made these decisions by Facebook, Twitter, and other social media firms so difficult was knowing that their unprecedented actions would unleash a tsunami of right-wing attacks against them, attacks supported by Republicans in Washington with calls for antitrust measures or new regulations. Indeed, there may be no issue about which GOP elected officials and their voters are more in sync than the notion Big Tech is out to get them.
But to believe that paranoid story is to also redefine what it means to be a conservative and Republican. I consider myself a pro-market, techno-optimist political conservative. And I have tweeted many thousands of times since 2008. I have often attacked the ideas and public policies — ObamaCare, tax hikes, Medicare-for-all — of Democrats and progressives. I have broadly supported the ideas and policies — lower taxes, lighter regulation, entitlement reform — of Republicans and the right. And in all that time, I've never had a problem with a single tweet. So I feel pretty confident in saying that if a self-identifying "conservative" in 2021 is tweeting a lot about the Trump tax cuts, China tariffs, and the need to limit immigration from non-white-majority countries, it's probably not those first two causing them problems with Twitter. Or maybe it's the tweets or Facebook postings about how armed patriots must cleanse Washington of the satanic cabal that stole the election from Trump and then hang the perpetrators. What social media companies are intolerant of is violent, hateful speech, not conservative speech — properly understood.
For instance: One analysis found that 95 percent of high-profile Twitter suspensions were of pro-Trump accounts. Maybe lots of those folks liked low taxes, too. But they also seemed to have a soft spot for white supremacy. A Techdirt review called the suspensions a "who's who of outspoken or accused white nationalists, neo-Confederates, holocaust deniers, conspiracy peddlers, professional trolls, and other alt-right or fringe personalities." Or maybe check out the daily rundown of top Facebook posts. Typically, it's dominated by right-wing media sources such as Fox News and Breitbart, along with "personalities" like Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino. But maybe Trump-era conservatives don't consider those folks satisfactorily right-wing. Or maybe they just see outrage as another way of weaponizing grievance to their political advantage — and to the disadvantage of American democracy.
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