Why silencing Trump on social media is a step in the right direction against the rise of fascism, despite the risks for freedom of online radical expression.
The invasion of the United States Capitol by radicalized supporters of Donald Trump on Wednesday, January 6, resulting of a campaign organized and led by the outgoing president’s first circle, created a shockwave around the world. In the aftermath, under pressure, major social media platforms suspended the personal accounts of Trump, opening a wide debate on online freedom of expression and the exorbitant power of Silicon Valley oligopolistic players. The latter, far from constituting transcendent and autonomous powers, are now clearly seen for what they are: political entities that are the object of internal and external struggles with nothing less at stake than the democratic functioning of the digital public space.
The suspension of Donald Trump from social media generated many criticisms especially among the European left who denounced the arbitrary power of major platforms. These concerns are obviously justified. On the one hand, cases of arbitrary censorship on these platforms are legion and are not limited to the racist, homophobic and sexist extreme right. Very often professional alternative media are targeted, but also social movements that question neoliberal hegemony, social and environmental injustices or even outright the principle of representative democracy or the bourgeois state (Yellow Vests, Extinction Rebellion, antifascists, anarchists etc.). In view of the latest developments, one is entitled to wonder whether this counter-hegemonic discourse questioning the established order still has its place in social media. Today, the latter constitute the main means of expression of the representatives of the radical and anti-authoritarian left because of their exclusion from mainstream media (whereas the extreme right is regularly welcomed there). There is therefore a real danger that Trump’s censorship will be used by political and economic power to try to remove from the digital public space any voice that is at odds with the dominant ideology.
On the other hand, pointing out the hypocrisy and incompetence of the platforms is also absolutely justified. For a long time, the latter have accommodated hateful and manipulative speech as long as it discreetly hinders “engagement” and therefore advertising revenues. Moreover, disinformation and propaganda campaigns on social media have influenced electoral processes in many countries such as the Honduras, Ukraine, Ecuador or India, and have even claimed numerous victims, as in the case of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, fuelled by hate speech on Facebook. We know today that these tragedies have not been avoided for trivial reasons such as the lack of human resources devoted to controlling risky uses and moderation of content, poor coordination between services or simply the lack of interest and consideration for these countries that constitute “small markets”.
However, all these arguments are not enough to disqualify the historic and intrinsically positive nature of the decision by Facebook, Twitter and Google to silence Donald Trump. For contrary to what is widely believed, this is not an “arbitrary” decision, but an imperative imposed on oligopolistic platforms by a powerful popular movement that reached its peak in the United States following the trauma caused by the events of the Capitol, but which preceded it. For years, progressive political organizations, civil rights advocates and anti-racist organizations have been calling on the platforms to silence Donald Trump and his supremacist friends, without success. As time went by, these calls have been joined by platform workers who are beginning to organize and demand the right to participate in decisions that affect the operations of the companies they work for.
At the same time, states and supranational organizations such as the European Union are coming out of their passivity that has lasted more than twenty years and are beginning to take up the question of regulating the digital economy. There is thus a generalized awareness of the exorbitant power of oligopolistic Internet actors and an increasingly strong social demand for their accountability. This demand has pushed certain platforms to gradually form a corpus of regulations that are increasingly political, in the sense that they are led to defend the values that underpin liberal democracies.
Unless we claim public control of the web giants, which is a defensible option, it is up to society and its mediators – politicians, researchers, journalists, associations, trade unionists – to go further by imposing a framework of democratic regulation of online political expression on the private companies that are its vectors. In this long-term struggle, silencing the main pole of neo-fascist discourse of our time is a step in the right direction.