Free speech for presidents

Following the short-lived occupation of the US Capitol building, Twitter and a number of other social media platforms have banned US President Donald Trump.

Predictably, this led to #thisis1984 trending on Twitter, with the right decrying the ban as Orwellian. Brendan O’Neill of Sp!ked – the publication which leads the advance of terrible opinions from the reactionary fringes into the mainstream discourse – declared this “a chilling sign of tyranny to come.” This is, he says, “a very significant turning point in the politics and culture of the Western world” as it sees “exceptionally wealthy and aloof elites determining which elected politicians may engage in online discussion.”

This isn’t a position confined to the right, however. A member of the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative counsel has said that “it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier.”

There’s a legitimate debate about the impact of corporations on freedom of speech and expression, but it doesn’t rest on the right of a US President to Tweet.

Yes, a few companies in Silicon Valley control the whole social media landscape and have undue influence as a result. That’s not a unique or historically unprecedented phenomenon though: it reflects the balance of power and ownership in both the traditional media and physical spaces.

What O’Neill calls the “powerful, unaccountable oligarchies of the internet era” are mirrors of the media barons who dominate print and broadcast news. However, the almost unmoderated right of reply that exists in social media is absent, and instead the discourse both reflects and directs the ‘Overton Window’ of acceptable opinion – with what is acceptable defined not by popular or democratic will but by who owns the press and by the fact that it doesn’t sell news to an audience but an audience to advertisers. In other words, just as O’Neill says tech companies are doing, media owners and advertisers have long been “exploiting their monopolistic power to dictate what political opinions it is acceptable to hold and express.”

In physical spaces, from the workplace to the public square, private ownership by the capitalist class is protected from dissent by the state and its monopoly on violence. Anti-strike legislation limits the extent to which workers can stand up to their bosses, whilst a tangle of laws serve to restrict the conduct of protests and criminalise protesters in a myriad of ways.

The media commentators who see unprecedented totalitarianism in Trump’s Twitter ban have no qualms over any of the above. Instead, they view any kickback against that monopolisation of discourse as the real threat to free speech. This is why they have been vocal in opposition to the Stop Funding Hate campaign, which seeks to redirect advertising influence towards making (for example) media demonisation of migrants unprofitable. It is why all of the furore around ‘cancel culture’ is centred on the defence of those with a considerable platform and privilege from any consequences for their words yet they will say nothing when Julia Hartley-Brewer, a member of the Free Speech Union’s PR/Media advisory council, threatening to get a man sacked for challenging her Covid-denying propaganda against the NHS.

In other words, they’re concerned about defending the free speech of the powerful from efforts by the powerless to resist that through free association and action.

So it is with Twitter. The platform is genuinely guilty of arbitrary and questionable banning decisions – more often than not against small voices who challenge the powerful or the genuinely dangerous. That, under immense pressure, it is occasionally forced to follow its own rules and look at safeguarding and risks of incitement isn’t the problem. Rather, the fact that under other circumstances the power and influence those accounts hold would protect it and see instead the less influential who challenge them banned is the problem here.

Private monopolisation of what should be public spaces is the key issue. Within that, the fact that (just like in real life) the powerful are protected from the consequences of their actions except in the most extreme circumstances is the crucial point.

Anarchists recognise that genuine liberty and equality go hand in hand, and that we cannot have either if we fail to address questions of power.
Alongside formal hierarchies, such as those embedded in the institutions of the state and capital, this includes invisible hierarchies that inevitably grow out of supposedly ‘structureless’ environs. In a group without a formal leadership, those with the most confidence and the loudest voices dominate with no democracy to rein them in. In a meeting without a chairperson, the most brash can speak unhindered – but the consequence is that others in turn are silenced.

That’s why our primary concern isn’t the right of US President to a massive platform and untold influence, including the ability to incite (amateurish, incompetent) coup attempts.

Those whose only demand is that those already with a platform and influence are never deprived of that do not stand for free speech. They stand in defence of a fundamentally unjust status quo in which free expression is directly linked to power.

Philip Dickens


Image by DonkeyHotey, published under CC BY 2.0.