Big Tech, the Alt-Right and Free Speech

By Saksha Menezes |

Since the attack on the US Capitol last Wednesday, there has been a demand for more moderation on social media platforms. 

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In response to this, Twitter has banned Donald Trump indefinitely from its platform, citing the risk of further incitement of violence after the Capitol attack. This has been followed by other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Their ‘terms of service’ has been cited as a reasoning for this but these standards are not placed on other world leaders on the populist right, such as Le Pen, Orban and Farage who have also indulged in dangerous rhetoric. This is prompting criticism from the right who argue that they are being ‘silenced’. 

Following these moves, alternative social media platform Parler, who labelled itself as a ‘free speech paradise’, got a sharp increase in downloads but was then promptly banned from Apple and Google’s app stores and Amazon Web Services said it would stop hosting Parler’s website. In letters sent to Parler about their decision, Amazon, Apple and Google all cited the social media company’s lack of a workable system to keep violent content off its platform. 

Michelle Obama called on these ‘Silicon Valley companies’ to ‘ban this man from their platforms and put in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation’s leaders to fuel insurrection.’ 

This is not a completely unprecedented situation. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Paypal and GoDaddy abandoned Gab as it emerged that the perpetrator used this network to broadcast his intentions. Similarly, CEO of Cloudflare, a website security company, Matthew Prince pulled its services from the white supremacist Daily Stormer website after the Charlottesville rally, and from 8chan after the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto on the platform. 

However, this is not just just about social media platforms anymore but about the oligopoly of companies that make these platforms available to the public. As a result, these tech CEOs are now given a huge amount of unchecked responsibility to monitor content on their networks. These cries have become much louder after the Capitol attack with many condemning Facebook, Twitter and Youtube for failing to stop the extremist, violent and dangerous content promoted by Trump and his followers which directly fuelled the attack. Among such voices, Michelle Obama released a statement on twitter which called on these ‘Silicon Valley companies’ to ‘ban this man from their platforms and put in place policies to prevent their technology from being used by the nation’s leaders to fuel insurrection.’ 

So called ‘Big Tech’ is defined as the largest and most dominant companies in the information technology industry of the US, namely Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. With each having a maximum market capitalization ranging from around $500 billion to around $2 trillion USD at various points, their power is immense. Concerns over monopolistic practices have also led to antitrust investigations from the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission in the US and the European Commission. 

Particularly in terms of freedom of speech, ‘Big Tech’ has come under fire. The First Amendment in the US protects only against government censorship so technology companies are able to regulate content because they are private. This was written into law by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act which not only permits these companies to censor constitutionally protected speech but also immunizes them from liability if they do so. 

The questions over ‘big tech’ is not diminishing the problem of social media platforms not keeping up with content moderation. For example, Youtube has been widely accused of driving right wing radicalisation, while Twitter has permitted racist and sexist abuse and Facebook failed to crack down on the ‘Stop the Steal’ campaign earlier on. However, how far can we censor the ‘alt-right’/far-right movement out of global society? 

the inauguration of Joe Biden does not equal the death of Trumpism.

However, it is one thing to root out misinformation in social media but censoring these points of views is a slippery slope. If these companies are now able to decide what is acceptable to have on their platforms or not, they must be under some sort of democratic accountability. 

In addition, there is an added worry that stifling criticism breeds terror. The seeds sown by Trump during his presidency, including a dismissal of mainstream media outlets as legitimate and encouraging hatred against liberals/leftists, resulted in disgruntled Trump supporters feeling like they had no option but violent insurrection. 

Ultimately, the inauguration of Joe Biden does not equal the death of Trumpism or the far-right in any sense of the word. There are many more people eager to believe the conspiracy theories that Trump has propagated for the past 4 years and if the US is to unite, healthy discussion must be promoted in a sphere that is easy to moderate.