Opinion | Deplatforming Trump Could Work. But at What Cost?

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By the time Donald Trump on Wednesday became the first president in American history to be impeached twice, he had already become the first president to be canceled by Silicon Valley. After years of defending his presence on their platforms, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media networks decided that the assault on the Capitol had left them no choice but to suspend his accounts — in Twitter’s case, permanently.

“A successful impeachment would be an embarrassing end to Mr. Trump’s political career,” my colleague Kevin Roose writes. “But losing his huge online following — 88 million followers on Twitter, and 35 million on Facebook — would deprive him of cultural influence long into the future. It takes away the privilege he seems to covet most: the ability to commandeer the world’s attention with a push of a button.”

The decisions drew praise from online-extremism researchers, but they also stirred concern among free-speech advocates. Will deplatforming the president actually stave off further violence, and what does it reveal about the state of free digital expression in the United States? Here’s what people are saying.

A dangerous precedent?

Silicon Valley’s sidelining of the most powerful person in the world has struck many — and not just his allies — as an alarming development. “World leaders have vocally condemned the power Silicon Valley has amassed to police political discourse, and were particularly indignant over the banning of the U.S. President,” the journalist Glenn Greenwald notes. “German Chancellor Angela Merkel, various French ministers, and especially Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador all denounced the banning of Trump and other acts of censorship by tech monopolies on the ground that they were anointing themselves ‘a world media power.’”

On Twitter, the Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny wrote: “This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. In Russia as well. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘This is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”

Defenders of these companies’ decisions, however, note that social media companies kick users off their platforms every day. “Facebook has booted off Lebanese politicians, Burmese generals, and even other right-wing U.S. politicians,” the journalist Jillian C. York writes, “never mind the millions of others who have been booted by these platforms, often without cause, often while engaging in protected speech under any definition.”

And as my colleague Kara Swisher points out, these companies are perfectly within their rights to do so. “Unfortunately, a lot of the people who are complaining, many of whom work in Congress, haven’t really read the First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law against — abridging freedom of speech. It doesn’t say that Facebook or Twitter or Apple or anybody should make no law,” she told ABC. “They can do whatever they want. They’re private businesses. Very similar to a restaurant where someone comes in and rants and starts to threaten violence and things like that, they get kicked out.”

But in the final analysis, neither Facebook nor Twitter is an Arby’s; they are points of entry to a de facto public square that is increasingly controlled by a handful of private companies. “Facebook and Twitter have no major rivals in their media niches,” Eugene Volokh writes in The Times. “The public relies on them as matchless mechanisms for unfiltered communication, including politicians’ communications with their constituents.”

“Making matters worse,” Matt Stoller and Sarah Miller write for The Guardian, “in seeking ad money and quick profits, Facebook and Google, as well as private equity, have killed the pro-social institutions on which we rely, such as local newspapers, by redirecting advertising revenue to themselves.” In the past 16 years alone, about a quarter of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, according to a University of North Carolina report.

Even those who support the tech companies’ decision to ban the president find their power troubling. “The ability of tech companies, acting in loose coordination, to mostly shut up the world’s loudest man is astonishing, and shows the limits of analogies to traditional publishers,” the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes. “Stripping him of access to social media tools available to most other people on earth has diminished him in a way that both impeachment and electoral defeat so far have not.”

That reality has seemed to disturb even Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s C.E.O., who claims to have previously taken solace in the notion that Twitter was but “one small part of the larger public conversation” happening on the internet. But “this concept was challenged last week when a number of foundational internet tool providers also decided not to host what they found dangerous,” he wrote on Wednesday. “This moment in time might call for this dynamic, but over the long term it will be destructive to the noble purpose and ideals of the open internet. A company making a business decision to moderate itself is different from a government removing access, yet can feel much the same.”

Unlike the government, however, platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not subject to democratic accountability. “At least governmental speech restrictions are implemented in open court, with appellate review,” Mr. Volokh writes. “Speakers get to argue why their speech should remain protected. Courts must follow precedents, which gives some assurance of equal treatment. And the rules are generally created by the public, by their representatives or by judges appointed by those representatives.”

The largely unchecked power to ban people from platforms that billions of people rely on should concern everyone, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. And while supporters of President Trump may be the loudest exponents of that concern at the moment, it is shared by people across the political spectrum, and has been for some time.

“The current system should frighten you, because under the current system, if Facebook’s bigwigs decide that there’s a political movement they don’t like (say, B.D.S.), they can simply disappear it,” Nathan Robinson, the editor of the leftist magazine Current Affairs, wrote in 2018. “They can hobble its organizing. They can block off important avenues to reaching people. They can, effectively, repeal the First Amendment at their whim.”

Will deplatforming work?

Tech companies justified their purge of accounts and applications from their platforms as a means of protecting public safety. “We believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Mark Zuckerberg said.

To be sure, there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of these companies’ newfound civic-minded commitments. Twitter, for example, has for years rebuffed requests from members of Congress to take down posts from Mr. Trump and others that led to threats against their life. And it was only on Monday that Facebook announced it would purge content promoting the same election-fraud conspiracy theories that led to last week’s mayhem.

“Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are trying to claim the mantle of champions of free speech and impartial loudspeakers for whoever has a deeply held conviction,” Greg Bensinger writes in The Times. “The truth is that they are businesses, driven by quarterly results and Wall Street’s insatiable desire for ever greater sales and profits.”

But setting questions of motive aside, can deplatforming be an effective tactic for depriving far-right extremists of attention? Ms. Goldberg thinks so: “You can see it with villains as diverse as ISIS, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones,” she writes. Peter W. Singer, a co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media,” told her, “Their ability to drive the conversation, reach wider audiences for recruitment, and, perhaps most importantly to a lot of these conflict entrepreneurs, to monetize it, is irreparably harmed.”

That argument is supported by a study published last summer by the European Journal of Communication, which found that “being canceled by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and/or YouTube has stark consequences for the maintenance of a fan base, following and revenue stream.”

At the same time, some fear that such crackdowns will only drive these groups underground. Much of the planning for last week’s attack on the Capitol happened on visible forums like Facebook, Twitter and Parler, but now some of the organizers have migrated to encrypted messaging apps like Signal that are more difficult to monitor.

“As these groups become fractured and spread, not just to different parts of the web but also to different channels within each app that they’re using, that is that many more places that law enforcement has to constantly be monitoring,” my colleague Sheera Frenkel told “The Daily” on Wednesday. “I spend hours of my day looking at these Telegram and Signal channels, and even I find it hard to keep up with the pace of communication in some of these networks.”

In the end, deplatforming the president “does make it significantly harder for disinformation to enter the mainstream,” Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Times. But, he added, “removing Trump from Twitter does not fix our politics or bring millions of Americans back to reality.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

MORE ON SILICON VALLEY’S PRESIDENTIAL CRACKDOWN

“The Meaning of Trump’s Mass Cancellation” [The Atlantic]

“Have Trump’s Lies Wrecked Free Speech?” [The New York Times]

“Trump’s Twitter, Facebook Bans Go a Step Too Far” [Bloomberg]

“Don’t Let Trump’s Second Trial Change the First Amendment” [The New York Times]

“As ‘Woke Capital’ Turns on Trump, the GOP Turns on ‘Small Government’” [New York]

WHAT YOU’RE SAYING

Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Trump’s second impeachment

Talbot: “I like the 14th Amendment solution. It’s quick, practical and does the job. As to impeaching Trump after he’s left office — I think this is creepy. There were Democrats saying they were going to impeach Trump on his first day in office. Aside from the spite/sour grapes component, there’s a ‘can’t accept election results’ aspect that shouldn’t be emphasized.”

Ron (via email): “Let’s say that Mr. Trump resigns and is pardoned by Mr. Pence for any and all federal crimes Mr. Trump may have committed while in office including any crimes of ‘insurrection and rebellion.’ Given a pre-emptive pardon against any crimes of insurrection and rebellion, can Congress still invoke the 14th Amendment to bar Mr. Trump from again holding national office — or has the pardon made the 14th Amendment no longer an option?”

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