Trump: Free Speech for Me, Not for Thee
Everyone Forgot Trump's Exec Order Banning Millions' Speech Online
The removal of Donald Trump and a number of right-wing conspiracy theorists from various social media networks follows an entirely predictable attempted coup at the Capitol. The bans engenders questions of free speech and the role of big tech companies online. These are serious questions with no easy answers. Nonetheless, even those who are sympathetic to the cause of free speech, shouldn’t look to Trump as a victim, and here’s why.
Not Public Forums
It is important to remember that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms are not public forums. They are private platforms that are not subject to First Amendment protections. Now, I’ll admit, this is within the realm of debate. The modem forum is a digital one, and one might reasonably argue that technology companies have too much power and sway over speech and media. I am sympathetic to this argument.
There is unquestionably a “leftish” bias in the technology world, and this is finding its way into the algorithms that drive search and the speech that is allowed online. There are very real concerns here.
Abuse of Power
The problem, however, is clear. Trump and his allies are people in positions of power and fame. They have used their respected positions to spread information that is demonstrably false, misleading, or just malicious lies. They have abused their freedom to sow irrational division, distrust, and hatred for political opponents in a way that is unprecedented in American history. Trump and his allies have spun conspiracies that evolve by the day, far faster than fact checkers can digest and counter them.
Just look at the “stop the steal” conspiracy, which began with unfounded concerns about mail in voting, but morphed into an outrageous global concern involving ballots printed in North Korea, a conspiracy including Governor Kemp and the CIA in Georgia, the FBI, companies like Dominion rigging election machines, sharpies, the FDA and pharmaceutical companies delaying the vaccine, doctors inflating Covid-19 deaths, technology companies, the media, and pollsters nationally, conspiring with the Biden campaign, as well as judges, including Trump’s own supreme court picks, along with William Barr and Vice President Pence belonging to the “deep state.” All of them, somehow, coordinated to “steal” the election from Trump. This is asinine.
You may have concerns about election security and that is perfectly fine and reasonable. But after scores of independent fact checks, several ballot recounts and audits, and 63 lost lawsuits, there is simply no cause and no basis to continue to assert that the election was “stolen.” Zero. None. This is not a matter of opinion.
Yet, these increasingly unhinged conspiracies are being pushed by the very people who we entrust to lead us. They have used their power to foment distrust, which is now spilling offline and into the streets. Armed protesters stormed the Capitol, fueled by the hatred of an imagined enemy and a disinformation campaign that has led them into an alternate reality.
As a supporter of free speech and opponent of Trump, I do not relish in the fact that he was booted from Twitter, but I also don’t care. I am unsure that it was the right thing to do. But we should recognize that people in his position owe a responsibility to be truthful and sincere. Trump has not been.
Additionally, remember that Trump was not a defender of free speech until very recently.
Trump Censored Free Speech on an Immense Scale
A few months ago, Trump signed an executive order banning a Twitter-like platform called WeChat, along with TikTok, from app stores in the United States, a ban that I criticized.
I remain steadfastly opposed to this ban, which is now fighting its way through the courts. Trump’s executive order banned entire private forums with tens of millions of active users at the stroke of a pen on “national security” grounds. Note that Trump did not present a single piece of reasonable evidence to support his “national security” concerns, and did not attempt to mitigate those concerns through measures that did not affront the First Amendment….and this is the reason that courts have refused (thus far) for enforce the ban.
Instead, as I have argued, Tiktok was targeted by Trump because Tiktok users contributed to Trump’s Tulsa rally fiasco where he held a rally in a near empty stadium. Meanwhile, WeChat, primarily used by Chinese diaspora living in the US, was targeted in racist retribution for the Covid-19 crisis. Both apps were not discussed as national security concerns until after Trump perceived to be humiliated by their users.
This bears repeating: at the stroke of a pen, with zero evidence of any imminent threat or danger, Trump sought to disenfranchise tens of millions’ right to free speech, in an unprecedented grab of executive power. Conservatives and Trump allies cheered the move and most were seemingly unbothered by the fact that they would be silencing others’ right to speech. These same people now cry foul when private networks, fully within their legal rights, ban a small number of users whom are planning or threatening violent acts and spreading malicious rumors.
In short, Trump and some of his conservative allies are no champions of free speech and don’t get to pretend to be now.
The question of how free social media should or should not be is up for debate. I do not have the answers. No one relishes in restricting the free speech of others. But Trump and his allies are not victims. They have abused their positions of authority for too long and engaged in wild self-serving conspiracies that are now costing human lives. Further, they have shown no qualms about crushing other peoples’ right to speech, they only cry foul now because they themselves lost the megaphone.