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And with a flip of a switch, he was gone.
Departing U.S. President Donald Trump lost his highly followed presence on both Twitter and Facebook, and on a whole host of other lesser social media sites as well, last week for, among other things, continuing to incite post-election violence.
A number of other prominent right-wing accounts disappeared as well, along with prominent sites fomenting the bizarre QAnon conspiracy.
But the issues and the de-platforming weren’t solely at the level of individual users.
The social media service Parler, which was basically created to house right-wing user content no one else would allow (and users who had been unceremoniously pitched off other platforms), suddenly ran afoul of both Apple and Google, which removed the site’s app from their stores last weekend for failing to moderate violent content.
Amazon also removed Parler from its web services division, saying the steady growth of violent content on the site violated Amazon’s terms of service — a move that means Parler will have to find a new web host or cease operating. The site went dark Sunday.
Social media wasn’t a safety-valve — it was a steadily overheating boiler without one.
Critics have cried censorship about both the removal of individuals and Parler’s current woes — and it is worth noting that, with the huge role social media plays in public now, access to social platforms is a sort of a necessity for public debate.
But the actual mechanism is much simpler than censorship.
If you rent a car, and the rental agreement specifies you can’t take it off-roading, and you then you roll it and write the vehicle off while jumping sand dunes at the beach, it’s not censorship if the rental company makes you pay for the damage.
Private social media companies have terms of service, and, even if you don’t bother to read them, when you use the service, you accept the rules. It doesn’t matter if the companies have chosen not to apply those rules in the past.
And the rules were certainly being tested: prominent right-wing social media users have, in just the past few days, mused about using a truck bomb to blow up former president Barack Obama’s home and neighbourhood, shooting or hanging Vice-President Mike Pence for treason for failing to support Trump, and assassinating House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And that’s just a mere bowlful of the bile, particularly on the un-moderated Parler site. That’s not simply the harmless off-gassing of disappointed Trump voters, as the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week made abundantly clear.
With postings becoming more unhinged by the day, it was pretty clear that social media companies had to do something. Social media wasn’t a safety-valve — it was a steadily overheating boiler without one.
Would any of this have happened if Joe Biden hadn’t won the U.S. presidential election? I don’t think so. Businesses, however lofty their stated principles, still operate with a healthy amount of profit-based pragmatism, and social media companies were already under fire from Trump. Poking a bear with four more years in office is completely different than shutting down a bear with eight more days at the post, however freakish those days become. Also, if Trump had won, he wouldn’t have had to head out into the land of violence and make-believe in his social media accounts.
But now, giants like Twitter and Facebook have knit themselves a more difficult problem: having identified what constitutes violations of their terms of service, they’ll also now have to find a way to consistently apply those same concepts across the board.
Having shown they know where the brake pedal is, they can legitimately be expected to have to apply it regularly, legitimately and even-handedly — or truly earn the appellation of censors.
Good luck with that.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at [email protected] — Twitter: @wangersky.