Insurrection, Big Tech and Freedom of Speech

  • Teresa Roque
  • 25 January 2021

Liberal democracy is based on the fundamental right to free speech. This fundamental right cannot be left in the hands of a few tech CEO’s.

The siege of Capitol Hill on the 6th of January left us all astounded. However, after that first bout of astonishment passed how surprised should we have really been? After four years of Donald Trump as President of the United States, little should surprise us. The warning signs were already there. If there is one thing that we can say about Trump it is that he has no filters. What you see is often what you get. The President had never committed himself to a peaceful transfer of power and for the last weeks and months had told his almost 90 million followers on Twitter and elsewhere that the election had been stolen.

What was truly remarkable was the lack of security around Capitol Hill, the day the Congress was to certify the election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States, especially after the both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security had picked up much online chatter regarding a possible insurrection.

In many ways it was a fitting end for a President that had ignored his oath to uphold and protect the Constitution of America. Capitol Hill will be his legacy, as will the two impeachments. I’m reminded of Voltaire’s words in his 1765 essay Questions sur les Miracles: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

On that historic date, Trump called on his supporters to amass in Washington to “stop the steal”. Later when pressured to tell the crowd to go home, he continued this narrative: “I know your pain. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it… We love you. You are very special.” No wonder Capitol Hill was stormed by people visibly deranged by a campaign of misinformation, of which this was the latest salvo.

All of this shows the power of leadership. A leader’s words have huge consequences. The problem with this President was that he was clueless, or frankly, didn´t care much for the consequences of his words. I have little doubt that many in that crowd believed they were being true patriots. A YouGov poll taken soon after the events showed that 45% of Republicans still supported what took place on the 6th of January. These people had been persistently lied to and misinformed for the past two months, in truth the last four years. Together with the amplifying echochamber of their social and media bubbles, it was a wonder that only five people saw their lives come to a tragic end.

Big Tech was quick to jump onto the wagon of outrage and condemnation. Twitter, quickly followed by Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, Snapchat and YouTube banned the accounts of President Trump and thousands of accounts of the right-wing fringe group Q-ANON that have spread the most outrageous conspiracy theories. When their adherents and supporters of various Alt-Right groups attempted to re-emerge on another app called Parler, Apple and Google banned it from their server.

So, we come to the second lesson of the day: the tremendous power of Big Tech and social media. Donald Trump who, as president, had ex officio access to conventional media outlets, chose instead to govern through Twitter. During his first impeachment in December 2019, he tweeted more than 600 times – an average of 58 times a day. Today, many if not most people get their prime sources of information from social media sites. Newspapers and even TV no longer play the preponderant role they used to play. Twitter and Facebook have become the public square of the modern age, where people congregate to discuss, exchange and validate their views. In many senses, they are now public utilities.

We are facing a civilizational challenge: how do we regulate these social media giants? Of course, any private company is free to deny its services to any user. This should be made plain and transparent to all in its Terms and Conditions and applied consistently. I actually looked up the Terms and Conditions of Twitter and co. and it is plain that the President of the US and many others, whose accounts are still alive and well, should have been long taken down.

Courts and state legislatures have long recognised that access to public utility service is a basic necessity in modern society. The utility’s duty to serve is not absolute, however. A utility may deny service for good cause, most notably, non-payment. However, as far as I know, there has been no such regulation regarding these four or five behemoths that dominate the public sphere.

Given they are public utilities I find it alarming that a few tech executives have the power to shut down the President of the United States and a large number of his supporters. It is one thing to deplore the President and all he stands for: it is another to take away his platform of choice.

As it happens, this time they got it right this time, but could have just as easily got it wrong! Though some have argued that the President’s words did not lead to a shirtless Viking stalking the halls of Congress or a mob calling for the hanging of Vice-President Mike Pence, I’m afraid I do not buy this argument. It was foreseeable and known beforehand that some of the President’s die-hard supporters had been organising an insurrection.

In our modern society, where social media plays such a huge role in social and political affairs, who are the rightful arbiters of free speech? Do we leave this in the hands of a few powerful men like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey? Categorically no. I think it extremely dangerous for any liberal democracy for Silicon Valley where profit is the ultimate criterion to set the rules of free speech.

Twitter made billions out of Donald Trump for years. When the ship began to sink, they decided to re-evaluate their policy. The 6th of January was the last straw. They knew very well they would have to deal with a democratic Congress and Presidency for the next four years and they would need to act “cooperatively” with their agenda. They were also feeling increasing pressure from advertisers, their bread and butter. Their response was not driven by patriotism or concerns about incitement to violence, but by profit and fear for their future.

So how do we regulate the Big Tech companies? Many commentators have called for the breakup of these near monopolies, similarly to what happened to Standard Oil in 1911 and AT&T in the 1980s. This is a lengthy process, so cannot be seen as a solution the short-term. What should be done now?

These companies need to be regulated by an independent regulator that clearly and consistently applies the rules of the game. This also is not as easy as it may first appear and raises more questions than it answers. Will it be an American regulator or an international one given these platforms are global? Do we combat incitement to violence in dictatorships where regime change would be welcome? What should the criteria be for blocking someone’s account? Incitement to violence or revolution is clearly a reason to get someone banned. Hate speech is more questionable and fluid. What constitutes hate speech today where the left and the right are so divided is not easy to define. We have seen how more liberal, left-leaning social justice warriors keep on expanding the boundaries of hate speech to include anything that provokes offense. Should someone’s freedom of speech be curtailed because it offended another? I’ve grave doubts about that. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if we are to censor people in this way our very liberal democracy is at stake. After establishing the rules of the game – no easy task -, there needs to be transparency and the possibility of redress in their application. That still leaves open where the redress should legitimately take place.

Law-makers have much to think about. When Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 appeared before a Congressional hearing, some Senators appeared to be light years away from being digital natives. The EU has been more thorough in cracking down on Facebook than the US, primarily due to privacy issues. There are a vast number of areas that need urgent regulation: data mining, privacy, meddling in elections, censorship, to name but a few. The siege on the Capitol and the resultant banning of thousands of social media accounts lay bare the issue of censorship. Liberal democracy is based on the fundamental right to free speech. This fundamental right cannot be left in the hands of a few tech CEO’s.

* This piece was originally published in the Observador. 

  • Teresa Roque
  • Board Member at St. Julian's School