On Trump’s De-Platforming

Who should moderate content and what are the pitfalls?

I’m Scott Nover. Welcome back to Pressing, a newsletter about press freedom. If you haven’t yet subscribed, you can do so here and receive this letter in your inbox every Tuesday morning.

This is the 64th issue of Pressing and it’s great to have you with me. Please send me feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and tips at sgnover@gmail.com.

Questions Linger after Donald Trump’s De-Platforming

Thanks for waiting! It’s been a few weeks since l last sent out a newsletter. I write about social media in my day job so I’ve been kept busy by Trump’s de-platforming, the Reddit-Wall Street saga and more.

Recently, some really important decisions happened concerning speech on the web. These are all decisions made by private companies who have the legal right to moderate their platforms as they see fit. Let’s recap:

  • In the fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol, nearly every major social media platform banned then-president Donald Trump. Twitter and Snapchat gave him the permanent boot, Facebook left his fate up to the pseudo-independent Oversight Board, and YouTube left the door open for a possible return.

  • Apple and Google booted Parler, a far-right social media platform, out of their app marketplaces for failing to properly moderate violent threats on its platform. Amazon Web Services severed its relationship with Parler for the same reasons, temporarily forcing the platform offline.

  • And Stripe and Shopify both severed ties with the Trump campaign’s online stores. And tons of companies stopped donating to politicians that voted against certifying the free and fair election results.

My take: In 2021, one of the major themes of my coverage will be the limits of content moderation. Which companies make decisions about political speech and which do not? I am working on a piece about this for Adweek, so I won’t give away all of it right now, but notice as we move further and further away from social media companies making decisions about online speech to companies that make up the “infrastructure” of the web: App marketplaces, web hosts, financial services companies and—if we dare entertain the thought—internet service providers. I think it’s important for companies to engage in their own constitutionally protected speech and associate with whatever people and companies they want, but we also need to consider the long-term effects of an internet that’s full of powerful decision-makers ordering what’s acceptable speech and what’s not.

I have no pity for Trump or his campaign and little sympathy for Parler (see my piece titled “Don’t Weep for Parler.”), but I am interested in market competition in this arena. Consider the above examples of companies cracking down on Trump and pro-Trump media. Facebook is being sued by the government for having a monopoly on social media, Google and Apple control closed environments for their app stores on Android and iOS devices respectively, and Amazon Web Services controls more than 30% of the cloud market.

For me, these questions about speech are not about whether Facebook should host Trump or even whether Amazon should host Parler. They’re more so about competition.

Do the banished have alternatives in the free market? Can a user find another social media platform if one bans them? Can a website find a new web host if one doesn’t want to host it? If an app can’t be downloaded from an app store, how can it survive?

I am mostly concerned about Amazon, Apple and Google banishing Parler because monopolists seem to be controlling important segments of speech online. Stripe and Shopify also ceased doing business with Trump and while they aren’t as dominant as, say, Visa and Mastercard, the two big credit card companies engage in similar practices from time to time. Recently, Visa and Mastercard both cut off access to PornHub following a New York Times piece about sex trafficking content on the adult website.

The two big questions here are 1.) Who should make decisions about content moderation online and 2.) Is there enough competition in these markets where those harmed can find alternatives?

What do you think about Trump’s de-platforming? Disagree with me about who should make these important decisions? As long as you don’t tell me that Twitter is violating someone’s First Amendment rights or that repealing Section 230 reform will fix all of these problems, I want to hear from you! Reply to this email and let me know your thoughts.

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Will Austin Tice Be a Priority for the Biden Administration?

The Trump administration was not shy about its commitment to bringing home journalist Austin Tice who is believed to be alive and imprisoned in Syria. In a November essay in this newsletter, I praised the former administration’s stated commitment to the cause and hoped that Biden would continue to make Tice’s recovery a priority—even if it meant breaking with established norms for how we communicate with oppressive regimes.

Today, a reporter asked the Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby about Tice but he declined to discuss the matter.

In a recent column, Jason Rezaian urged Biden to retain one Trump appointee: Roger Carstens, the special envoy for hostage affairs.

Even though it would mean extending the tenure of a Trump political appointee, Biden should keep current Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens on board. Doing so would send a powerful message to the families of Americans currently being held abroad and their captors that the U.S. government is always committed to the safe return of Americans wrongfully or arbitrarily detained.

According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, Rezaian notes, 43 Americans including Tice are being held hostage abroad. It’s still unclear how exactly Biden will approach the tough task of bringing them home.


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