The temporary deplatforming of Donald Trump is the perfect distillation of Big Tech’s attempt to pantomime principles.
The swirling of the last dregs of the Trump administration around the drain has given some prominent Americans one last chance to prostrate themselves before the outgoing president. Facebook and Twitter’s decision to place the president in a temporary internet timeout following his incitement of a violent mob that trashed the U.S. Capitol is the perfect capstone to four years of appeasement and corporate cowardice.
The advertising industry is generally acknowledged as one of the most risk-averse and craven industries on the planet, with decision-making guided largely by attempting to be as inoffensive as possible to as many people as possible, taking a position on an issue only in the weakest, safest, most carefully hedged terms available. Though companies like Facebook and Twitter hold the unfathomable power to control the distribution of information to billions of people around the world and like to think of themselves as helping bring humankind to some next level of consciousness, they are still very much in the advertising business.
As advertising companies, cowardice runs deep in the souls of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, companies that have spent the past four years looking the other way, equivocating, and contorting themselves into pretzels in an attempt to justify Trump’s unfettered access to the most powerful information distribution system in world history. Despite perennial speculation in the press as to what might psychologically or ideologically explain Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey’s total unwillingness to meaningfully act, there is just one factor: money. Twitter and Facebook are only worth anything as businesses if they can boast to advertisers of their access to an enormous swath of the American market, across political and ideological lines, and fear of a right-wing backlash has been enough to keep Peter Thiel on Facebook’s board and Trump’s voter suppression dispatches on Twitter’s servers.
According to a Facebook moderator who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity for fear of employer retaliation, watching the company drag its feet, yesterday in particular, has been excruciating. According to internal communications reviewed by The Intercept, the Capitol break-in is now considered, for purposes of Facebook’s willy-nilly application of the rules, “a violating event,” and any “praise,” “support,” or even friendly “representation” is banned on the basis of the company’s “Dangerous Organizations” policies, which this moderator explained is typically applied to posts celebrating terrorist attacks, drug cartel murders, and Aryan street gangs. The policy update was relayed to moderators, this source said, around 4:30 p.m. in Washington, by which point the Capitol had already been violently occupied for hours and a woman shot dead. Just today, as the broken glass is being swept up in the Capitol, Facebook blasted out another moderator update, informing them that the company was “internally designating” the entire United States as a “temporary high risk location,” which adds heightened restrictions to posts inciting violence, backdated to yesterday and effective through the end of Thursday.
Fearful of Trump even on his shameful way out, Facebook did the bare minimum when it was too late to mean much.
As some Facebook observers have pointed out, had the company cared to look, it could have easily found that its platform was being used to plan an event it would eventually categorize alongside the Lockerbie bombing. Instead, fearful of Trump even on his shameful way out, Facebook did the bare minimum when it was too late to mean much. “Facebook treated this event correctly but Facebook is also complicit in this event,” the moderator said. “It’s all so blatantly obvious.”
The president’s past half-decade of incitement against the perceived ethnic enemies of his base have been met with nothing more than risible warning labels and worthless “fact checks,” as have his more recent efforts to dupe his already deeply confused supporters about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. There’s no reason to believe these barely-there penalties did anything at all to chasten Trump or deter his message; their utility existed only to the companies themselves, who could no longer be accused of doing literally nothing. Just as Facebook put off acknowledging its role in the genocide in Myanmar until it was too late to matter, and just as the company built an election interference “war room” and quickly disbanded it after some photo ops, the recent decisions to mildly inconvenience the world’s most powerful living person when he has 13 days left in power is the perfect distillation of Big Tech’s attempt to pantomime principles, halfheartedly pointing to the void where a conscience would be.
“Slightly more than literally nothing” has been the unifying theme of big tech’s response to years of public concern that Trump would eventually use the platforms to get people killed, and yesterday, as his most rabid supporters puttered around the Capitol aimlessly pushing over chairs and reading House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mail, represented the appeasement strategy’s ultimate failure: Four people are dead following a mob that Trump incited and directed. Hours after it would have made any difference, Facebook and Twitter, his two favorite platforms, did what they were previously unwilling to do: risk upsetting the president by temporarily restricting his ability to broadcast.
In a stirring gesture of corporate bravery, Twitter put Trump in the penalty box for 12 whole hours, suggesting that if perhaps 8 people had been killed in the Capitol melee, or if he’d encouraged the mob to brawl its way into a second federal landmark, he may have gotten a whole day’s suspension. Facebook, also true to form, has banned Trump from posting “indefinitely,” a word that means absolutely nothing and will give the company the freedom to change its mind at any point in the future, in accordance with the shifting tides of governmental power and public opinion.