Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump is like bolting the stable door after the QAnon shaman has gone. The damage was done long before the assault on the Capitol was planned on social media. Long before Donald Trump tweeted his way to the White House, social media had reduced American democracy to a lurid freak show.
The ban also shows how far the big-tech oligarchs are prepared to go in order to retain their absurd and damaging monopolies. After the 2016 elections, social media promised to clean up their act. The digital fiascos of the 2020 election and its aftermath confirm that Big Tech is incapable of being the value-free guarantor of the modern public square. Instead, it has been heavy-handed and incompetent: blatantly intervening on behalf of the Democrats (the silencing of the New York Post for running the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the pompous tagging of Trump’s tweets as unverified), yet incapable of stemming the tide of cross-party incitement and lies.
Silicon Valley is even less able to bear the responsibilities — legal as well as moral — that come with power. Or perhaps the manchildren of tech just wanted money, which means power without responsibility. The internet has consumed media, politics and entertainment and mulched it into a slurry of depravity. Social media is not the place to find out what’s going on in the news. But it’s great if you want to keep up with the hottest trends in porn, racism, terrorist snuff movies and the thoughts of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Slowly, even the dimmest among us, the politicians, have realised that ‘the medium is the message’. The right now sees Big Tech as digital Democrats. The left now sees Big Tech as a big dupe, the funnel for disinformation Russian and domestic. Only a vast tide of ‘donations’ has spared Silicon Valley from regulation. That, and Trump’s failure to do what he promised to do: dismantle Section 230 and treat Big Tech as monopoly publishers.
Trump’s Justice Department started the process last October by launching an antitrust suit against Google, which controls nearly 90 per cent of online search enquiries in the US. Before he disgraced himself by pandering to the mob, Sen. Josh Hawley called it ‘the biggest antitrust case in a generation’. Sen. Elizabeth Warren supported it too, and called for ‘swift aggressive action’ to what she fluently tagged as ‘#BreakUpBigTech’
Joe Biden has said he wants to restore amity and work across the aisle — but that was before the Georgia runoffs gave the Democrats the Senate. Even before the elections, he was softer on Silicon Valley than Trump: where Trump threatened to break up the tech monopolies, Biden took Obama’s line, and said he’d ask them to play nice.
Biden also took more money from Big Tech than any candidate in American history. Donations to the Democrats by Bay Area residents rose from $163 million (£120m) in 2016 to $199 million (£146m) in 2020. Bay Area residents gave $800,000 (£590,000) to Trump in 2016, and $22 million (£16m) in 2020. That says all we need to know about who Silicon Valley thought would give it an easy ride.
Big Tech wanted Biden, the lesser threat, to win, and it did its best to make sure he did. But it failed to pre-empt the riot at the Capitol, which was promoted, premeditated and live-streamed on social media.
‘This is going to come back and bite ’em because Congress, in a bipartisan way, is going to come back with a vengeance,’ Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Friday, hours before Twitter banned Trump, and Apple and Google, who claim they’re not monopolies, threatened to ban Twitter’s right-wing rival Parler from their app stores.
Big Tech has jumped before it was pushed. It has landed heavily on free speech, and led with its left foot too. Don’t assume that this time Big Tech has gone too far, and that a bipartisan consensus in Congress will follow through on Mark Warner’s threats. This is the policy that the Biden administration wants, and the Biden administration is the government that Big Tech bought. This isn’t overreach: this is the embrace we cannot escape.
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