March 7, 2021

Everything Pundits Are Getting Wrong About This Current Moment In Content Moderation

By Jillian York

Since Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump and began “purging” QAnon conspiracists, a segment of the chattering class has been making all sorts of wild proclamations about this “precedent-setting” event. As such, I thought I’d set the record straight.

1. “Deplatforming Trump sets a precedent”

That says:

Deplatforming Donald Trump, a sitting US president, sets a dangerous precedent.

It has less to do with his views and more to do with intolerance for a differing point. Ironically, those who claim to champion free speech are celebrating.

Big tech firms are now the new oligarchs.

First of all, the only “precedent” set here is that this is indeed the first time a sitting US president has been deplatformed by a tech company. I suppose that if your entire worldview is what happens in the United States, you might be surprised. But when you look outside that narrow lens, you would see that Facebook has booted off Lebanese politicians, Burmese generals, and even other right-wing US politicians…nevermind the millions of others who have been booted by these platforms, often without cause, often while engaging in protected speech under any definition.

2020 alone saw the (wrongful, even in light of platform policies) deplatforming of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people using terms related to Iran (including a Los Angeles-based crafter’s “Persian dolls” by Etsy) in an overzealous effort by companies to comply with sanctions, the booting of Palestinian speakers from Zoom on incorrectly-analyzed legal grounds, the deplatforming by Twitter of dozens of leftist Jews and Palestinians for clapping back at harassers, and so much more.

2. “This is the biggest online purge in history!”

That says:

I’ve lost over 15,000 followers today – insane how many accounts are getting terminated in the largest online purge in history

Twitter has been purging accounts of QAnon conspiracists and other right-wing accounts over the past week or more. Many of these accounts engage in dangerous rhetoric, including encouragement of violent insurrection against a democratically elected government. It is indeed interesting, particularly when one compares it to the company’s inaction against similar rhetoric in India and elsewhere. But what it isn’t is the “largest online purge in history”—not by a long shot. I would suggest that that occurred two years ago, when Twitter kicked off more than a million alleged ISIS accounts with zero transparency and the “freeze peach” galaxy brains didn’t blink.

3. “AWS kicking Parler off its servers is a step too far/is unprecedented/marks new territory in the digital rights debate”

That says:

Companies like Amazon should either get out of the hosting business, or remain agnostic about what their customers use their services for. As a very long term user, all the way back to the beginning of S3, their move today is disturbing and unacceptable.

To be completely fair, I am of the belief that infrastructure companies play a different role than platforms designed to host user speech/user-generated content, and that decisions like this should not be taken lightly. But let’s not pretend it hasn’t happened before (to be fair, Dave Winer is not doing that, and he is quite aware of the company’s history on these matters). In 2010, AWS famously booted WikiLeaks after no more than concern from the State Department—that is, WikiLeaks hadn’t been charged with anything—kicking off a series of deplatformings of the group. But WikiLeaks is not the only example here: Sanctions—or at least some legal interpretations of them—have meant that ordinary folks from countries like Iran can’t use AWS freely either. Last January saw a massive purge of Iranian users from various platforms, likely instigated by the Department of Treasury (though thus far, we have no proof of that). Some might suggest that this is a legal requirement of Amazon, but as GitHub demonstrated this week, there are indeed workarounds for companies that care enough about internet freedom.

4. “This is communism!”

Uh no, this is capitalism. Platforms have this much power because unbridled American capitalism is what y’all wanted. It is also not “Orwellian,” I can assure you.

5. “The Google Play store/Apple store booting Parler sets new precedent.”

Uh actually, no it doesn’t. Does anyone remember that Apple forced Tumblr’s hand hardly two years ago by threatening to kick it out of the App store if it didn’t do something about the child sexual abuse imagery it was unknowingly hosting, resulting in a near-total ban on nudity and sexual content on the site? Anyone?

5. “Twitter won’t let you hashtag #1984”

That says:

Twitter won’t let you hashtag #1984, a dystopian novel about an evil Big Tech government that spies on everyone, censors and manipulates speech, punishes wrong-thought, and tortures dissidents for sport.

There’s Orwellian, and then there’s banning references to Orwell Orwellian.

Twitter has never allowed number-based hashtags, next?

Got more examples? Shoot them to me on Twitter.

Republished with permission from Jillian C. York’s website.