I'm an extremely left-leaning trans dude. You'd think I'd be celebrating with my fellow leftists right now, because after Trump supporters went full-mango and infiltrated the Capitol building, the needle finally got pushed:
- "Free speech" social media platform Parler got removed from Google Play & the Apple Store.
- Trump is now banned from Twitter & Facebook
- Biden has been officially marked POTUS.
So what's the problem, if my side "won?"
The problem is as follows:
A "win" for the left, or business as usual?
Monopolistic social media platforms owned by tech giants can ban anyone for any reason. They are businesses that created, and are fueled by, the capitalism of social media. They only act when risk overwhelms the benefit of engagements.
Case in point: Twitter only banned Trump after he posted a video filled with disinformation and emboldened his supporters with the false narrative of voter fraud. Twitter let him post inciting content like this for years, until now.
Trump's loyalists finally threatened power enough to incite action. As power protects power, big tech social media platforms only act when the hegemony they benefit from is at risk.
Furthermore, Twitter's bandaid approach to slapping "this claim is disputed" on Tweets didn't actually get Trump supporters (and the enabling right) to think about disinformation, or stop proliferating and profiting from it.
In addition to this, though we consider Parler's removal a win as its a hot-bed for extremist organizing, we've given mobile app marketplaces like Google and the Apple Store free reign to squash access of any app, for any reason.
In a hugely connected world, where the internet should actually be a utility, this is a monopolization issue, one that is meaningful to discuss.
I'm not saying that white supremacist agitators and disinformation campaigns are harmless—they're dangerous. I'm not saying the right doesn't need to be held accountable for what it enables—it does. I am not saying that protecting people on social media is bad—it's good. Or that cult leaders shouldn't be banned—they should.
What I am saying that the online left is ignoring the monopolization of platforms for discussion, and we cannot afford to.
This leads to the next topic:
Are social media outlets platforms or publishers?
And why is the distinction important?
Here's the big issue with social media monopolization: people look to social media as news sources. In fact, news hits social media first, and traditional media outlets scramble to keep up.
Furthermore, Trump ran his presidency from Twitter, confusing public policy for the US government with dubious Tweets, which is dangerous. It's also not what platforms do, but what Newspaper Publishers do.
Add in that political ads circulate on the socials, with a dash of Facebook's issue with upholding facts vs. appearing biased in fact-checking ad content, and we reach a point where we have to ask if social media giants are publishers or platforms.
If they're publishers, then they're responsible for everything posted on them, which leads to government regulation, and can lead to government overreach.
Giving the government omnipotent control over avenues of discussion is bad. For example, if the government was feeling particularly authoritarian, we're looking at a shitload of invaluable activist organizations cut off from public channels and public support.
This is a topic Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists, and the enabling right focuses on, but only when it pertains to their brand.
If social media giants are platforms, then they have no control over what's on them, and this impacts safety.
The only way to grapple with this is instituting self-governance with community-appointed Admins/Mods. Or, they can take an entirely hands-off approach, which big tech won't do because of legal, structural, and business reasons.
A hands-off approach leads to spaces like 8chan; hot-beds for extremists. Yet, platforms like this still exist, and for a complicated reason.
On this front, 8chan is kept open because government agencies use it to pin-point sex traffickers, domestic terrorists, and other dubious activities.
On the flipside, as we're aware that branches of law enforcement didn't heed the simmering terrorist activity we all saw unfold, this seems a weak argument. Furthermore, if law enforcement exists to serve power, proven when Trump supporters were initially let into the Capitol building equipped with selfie-police-shenanigans, it further neuters my stance.
However, I want to stress that when extremist groups are pushed into the dark corners of the web to fester unmonitored, this leads to real life repercussions. Regardless if law enforcement is doing the job they say they do, and are supposed to do, or not.
I am not arguing that we should let extremists cause mass chaos online. I am saying it's a reality that if they go "off grid" because all their convo lines are cut, they can't be monitored.
The left doesn't want to touch this platform vs. publisher issue with a ten foot pole, because to admit that "it's complicated" appears to compromise its positions.
It means giving Trump supporters fuel to think they're "fighting the good fight", when their disinformation campaigns, ignorance, and emboldening of white supremacy are actually dangerous.
Now we see the pickle we're in:
The political online censorship issue boils down to surface-level analyses
Instead of looking at the machinations inherentNote that I'm making observable generalizations of a divide in online groups, here. If you don't do these things, and are concerned about all of this, it's not about you. If you make it about you and cry that you don't do this stuff, other people exist, and they do it often.
Please don't misconstrue my arguments, or I will get very pissed off.
The online left, especially on Twitter, repeatedly says "only nazis get b&" and face repercussions in online spaces. This is not always true.
When sex workers are deplatformed to holy hell, which impacts their income and safety/mobility, it's not that "only nazis" suffer.
When moral but illegal institutions like Sci Hub get banned on Twitter, it's not that "only nazis" suffer.
When trans people push back against bigots and get banned for saying a mean word all of one time, it's not that "only nazis" suffer.
When Google ousted Timnit Gebru—an invaluable expert on biases in AI—firing her in one day, it clearly isn't "only nazis" suffer. This isn't on social, but this is still a symptom of the same goddamn problem: big tech protecting power, and playing performative business bullshit.
We cannot say it's only "bad people" suffering consequences of social media crackdowns and big tech censorship. We can say that the Trump supporter problem is more important right now, and that's accurate, but if we stop there, the work is left unfinished.
Talking about this problem does not diminish the right's malfunction.
The right appears to fight against censorship on social media, but only when it impacts them saying whatever they want, regardless of consequences.
Moreover, the right could've grappled with the Trump supporters and the disinfo years ago. It didn't, because it suited their interests politically (enablers), ignorantly (white supremacy isn't real/police are my friends/etc) morally (the "censorship is bad" crew) and monetarily (the grifting club).
Until it didn't, because it threatened power (government/big tech). That's the heel-face turn we're seeing with right-leaning talking heads right now.
Because the right refuses to take action when marginalized groups face a flavor of the problem they face (though it is different), refuses to address white supremacy, and refuses to grapple with Trump cultism, its issues with censorship are toothless.
If we ALL don't admit these are problems, and we act like this isn't a valuable discussion to have because we'll be giving ideological ground, we miss tackling the systematic problems at hand.
Systematic problems that far outstrip social media performative business politics, in my humble opinion.
I'm not advocating for keeping disinformation on social media, nor coddling cults or enablers
However, I'm not advocating for leftist social media capitalism, either
What I am advocating for is discussion on monopolies, media, big tech, and the politics of power. I am not bringing this up to coddle white supremacists. I am bringing this up because it's a real issue, and the general online left lodging this topic in "class reductionism" territory is foolish. Likesome, any analysis of class that ignores white supremacy is baby-shit, and anyone who acts like it doesn't matter is both complicit, foolish, and ignorant.
Let's not forget, power likes to protect itself by deflecting us away from it.
On one side, the left engages in social media capitalism because it cannot enact change without organizing, in a system that protects neoliberal bullshit. Social media provides the illusion of organizing, which keeps power safe, and also gives social media tech giants more power and money.
Power placates the actual left with a playpen.
This is not to say that there isn't great organizing being done using social media as a tool. This is to say that the majority of the online left doesn't actually organize. It just does a by-proxy capitalism with spicy tweets.
Until the left grapples with white supremacy, while embracing class analysis, and truly organizes, nothing changes. Big tech is still dangerous, power still serves itself, white supremacy survives, we will keep ignoring/mishandling the alt-right pipeline, and we will keep getting neoliberal wet farts in office.
On the other side, the right keeps white supremacist status quo intact, and enables Trump supporters to be conned into believing a dictator loves them by standing by all "free speech" (even dangerous disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, terrorism, and flagrant bigotry RE: yelling fire in a theater).
All the while, each time the left explains intersectional issues, or gives a classism 101 lesson, it fails.
Power told the right that the left wants to take their freedoms.
Until the right—at large—is willing to fight for marginalized people, realizes police are not their friends, figures out white supremacy is real, understands classism, and admits they've been lied to and/or enabled disinformation, nothing changes.
If power keeps us in a dog-fight against each other without us noticing because it satisfies us with the performative frosting, we will never hold power accountable.
When are we going to actually hold power accountable?
And why is asking this question bad?
I know accountability must happen, but I'm just not seeing current business efforts as anything more than performative "business as usual."
We see performativity when social media businesses take forever to address extremists. We see it when marginalized people are banned for no reason. We see it when law enforcement doesn't do the job it says it does, because of course it doesn't. We see it every single time a business promises to do better, but does nothing.
Expecting big business to do the right thing without direct uprooting on our part isn't compatible with the fact that big business is in bed with power. It isn't compatible with redress of a system designed to disempower citizens and profit from white supremacy.
I do not want us to forget that we have to think about what comes next, and tackle the real-life systematic issues we are facing. This is going to take actually organizing, and tackling topics/asking questions that make us uncomfortable.
However, it certainly isn't going to come about by expecting power not to protect itself. And it isn't going to come from being placated by big tech performativity, either.Article edited 1/9/21 at 5:23PM for more active language because I'm being too nice. Edited again at 10:56 am on 1/13/21 because I was still being too nice. Edited at 12:02 on the same day also, because I keep finding more lovely (deeply frustrating, incredibly rage-inducing) examples, isn't that nice.