The online revolution centered in California’s Silicon Valley came to the rescue of democracy Wednesday by temporarily locking out President Trump from social media platforms.
When Trump refused to quickly condemn the riot he incited at the Capitol, and later offered only mealy-mouthed calls for calm that reiterated his big lie about the election being stolen, Twitter and Facebook acted on their own.
Twitter locked out the President for 12 hours. Facebook went further, making the ban indefinite, as did Snapchat. That did this to prevent Trump for possibly inciting further violence.
Unlike many, perhaps most countries, media is the United States is almost entirely in private hands. We don’t have a public broadcaster like the BBC, an official newspaper like the People’s Daily, or a state news agency like ITAR-TASS. It’s entirely up to private American owners to decide how to cover the news.
A lot of politicians throughout the world hate independent, privately owned media because they can’t control it. This is especially true of the new media types spawned by the creativity of Silicon Valley.
Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and America’s world-champion technology companies like Amazon, Google and Apple are increasingly under attack exactly because of such independence.
A number of states have filed antitrust suits, and Trump has been singularly fixated on removing Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. In fact, he vetoed the important annual defense bill because it didn’t specifically include repeal of this unrelated law.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, the man who infamously raised his fist in support of the mob outside the Capitol before objecting to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, is also fixated on this section.
“For too long, Big Tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook have used their power to silence political speech from conservatives without any recourse for users. Section 230 has been stretched and rewritten by courts to give these companies outlandish power over speech without accountability,” according to Hawley.
Why are they so fixated on this law? Because it gives ordinary Americans an easy way to make their thoughts and and concerns public. It turns every person with a computer or smartphone into an independent publisher. This really, really threatens politicians.
In authoritarian countries like China, the solution is simple: monitor everything and everyone though a “social credit system.” But in the United States, the First Amendment and Section 230 prevent this.
The section states very simply that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It means that when you write a restaurant review, post a video, or tweet that Trump is a Facist, the online platform isn’t responsible and can’t be sued.
Now Trump, Hawley and other politicians, businesses aggrieved by bad reviews, and celebrities seeking to remove unflattering photos aren’t going to go though a lot of effort to try to sue you. They’d rather sue the deep pockets: Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Google, Amazon and so on. Section 230 prevents that.
If there was no Section 230, your restaurant review would be subject to editing and your video would be taken down to avoid a lawsuit. And Trump’s tweets from Wednesday telling his “very special” mob “I know your pain” would still be public to avoid any accusation of unfairness.
Social media companies came through for democracy on Wednesday by exercising their independence in the great tradition of American media independence. If we take away their speech protections, it’s as bad as inviting the mob back into the Capitol.
Chris Jennewein is editor & publisher of Times of San Diego.