You have to like Trump’s openness: “Media exist to make me look good. Fox is great. I like Fox News. Washington Post is an enemy of the state. I want to shut it down, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. If Facebook shuts down one of my fans – Alex Jones or James Woods, for example – we need to do something about them. I don’t like Facebook.” Zuckerberg will get it no matter what he does now, if Trump carries out his vague threats.
Why did Zuckerberg shut down all those accounts? Due to pressure from people who dislike those voices. He says those provocateurs violated his terms of service, but not one of them had changed the nature of their content recently. Every one of his deplatformed victims had their ability to publish snicked off long after Facebook put guidelines in place that would allow it to silence anyone it doesn’t like. Trump’s opponents, however, are more sly than Trump. They say Jones and company make them feel unsafe.
Now suppose you tell a friend over the phone that you hate Trump, or you think Sandy Hook is a hoax, or that 9/11 was an inside job.
A comparison with another communications platform, Verizon, is a useful one. Both Facebook and Verizon are private corporations, publicly held because they sell shares to shareholders. Both handle communications, and both do not moderate their content. Both deliver their content to households via the same digital networks: FIOS lines if you sign up with Verizon for your phone and broadband internet service. Both are large companies: their revenue depends on delivery of content to their customers.
Now suppose you tell a friend over the phone that you hate Trump, or you think Sandy Hook is a hoax, or that 9/11 was an inside job. Each of these statements violates Facebook’s terms of service. What would we say if our Verizon line went dead shortly after we said those things? We wouldn’t be so happy about that.
Now we see a difference between Facebook and Verizon. Verizon charges its customers, individually, to transmit and receive audio content over its phone lines. Facebook does not charge either its publishers or its readers. That appears to give Facebook more freedom to regulate content than the phone company has.
All we know so far is that we are back in the days of propaganda wars.
Are Facebook and Twitter communications utilities, or not? If a member of my family receives death threats via Twitter, I won’t be overly critical of Jack Dorsey if he shuts the threatener’s account down, even if threat isn’t imminent. I do not care to have death threats piped into my household. Yet when someone calls my telephone line to deliver a death threat, Verizon does not cut off the individual’s service. Victims of Facebook’s ax did not direct their speech toward individuals.
Neither do these putative purveyors of hate have alternatives – other social media sites where they can reach a large audience. They can publish elsewhere, but their audience would not visit those sites to read their content. In general, they do not know where those sites are. They habitually check their Facebook feed. They do not search out other sources.
All we know so far is that we are back in the days of propaganda wars. These wars have flared repeatedly during our country’s history, most famously during the highly acrimonious period from 1765 to 1815. That is the half century that preceded the so-called Era of Good Feelings, a name that indicates the propaganda wars went into hibernation for a decade or so. Periods of hibernation since then have been a good deal shorter.
We hoped the internet would give everyone a platform.
One reason current developments dismay: we hoped the internet would give everyone a platform. You did not need the investment required to publish a newspaper or magazine, or to broadcast a radio or television signal. You could buy a computer for a few hundred dollars, connect it to the internet, and reach your audience. It’s discouraging to have people deplatformed for their views so soon after this new technology promised freedom of expression for so many people.
How do you know you are in a war? You take no prisoners. What does it mean to take no prisoners? You kill them. You do not let them surrender. Alex Jones essentially surrendered in an interview shortly before internet grandees castrated him, which is another thing you can do when you don’t want to hold a prisoner. Let him bleed to death. Propaganda wars have always been nasty. We are in the middle of another one.