The architects of our own decline: why Twitter shouldn’t have banned Trump
When it comes to Donald Trump, people have strong feelings. In other news, the Pope is Catholic.
But this issue isn’t whether you feel strongly about Donald Trump, it’s about whether we abandon the rules and norms of liberal democracy because we feel strongly about Donald Trump.
I want to expand a little bit on my thinking behind that tweet in longer form, as much for me to clarify my own thoughts as anything else.
Here’s a quick overview of what follows so you can trace the logic of my admittedly tired brain:
1. Two things this argument isn’t about
2. The logic flow of banning President Trump and why its wrong
3. A hypothetical scenario to illustrate my point
4. Ending argument
But first, three quick things to demonstrate my good faith in writing this and ensure we start on the same page:
- I find Donald Trump appalling and I don’t agree with his politics. I abhor his personality. Nothing I’m going to say should be seen as a defence or equivocation of his behaviour this week, or really, ever. MAGA heads need not read on.
- Donald Trump is the duly elected President of the United States. He is not a normal person both in the literal sense, and because of the office he holds. I don’t agree with arguments that when it comes to his speech he should be treated like everybody else. If you’re still litigating 2016, you need not read on.
- This is a difficult case. If it was easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it. I feel bad for tech executives; whatever they do they’re bound to draw fire. There’s no correct answer. In fact, I’m sure I will disagree with a lot of smart people I like and respect on this issue. So, if you think its your way or the highway on this issue, you need not read on.
1. Two things this argument isn’t about
Twitter absolutely can ban Trump, this is not a legal argument
This is not a legal question — we’re not discussing any laws that might prevent Donald Trump from spouting his hate, and his ‘freedom of speech’ is not being infringed by any ban. He is not being ‘silenced’ in any way the law would recognise.
The fact is, private companies can legally exclude whoever they choose from using their platforms (obviously subject to discrimination laws). The folks I’ve seen arguing that Twitter is ‘illegally silencing’ the President are ill-informed, ill-intentioned, or both.
Tech companies’ terms of service are a joke and shouldn’t be used as justification for anything
Lots of people have responded by saying that Donald Trump violated Twitter’s terms of service and that the real issue is that they must apply their terms to everyone. If you don’t like it, use another platform.
I disagree for two reasons:
- The terms of service are intentionally vague and reasonable people will disagree about their meaning and application. Well-meaning smart people can and have made arguments that he wasn’t inciting violence. I disagree, but it’s not black and white. To pretend this is a simple case of objective application of clear rules is disingenuous and obscures the real issue.
- Tech companies regularly update terms of service after an egregious event has caused them to ban a user. This is well documented. Put simply, they make up rules as they go along to justify their decisions. It is a fundamental feature of fairness that rules should be prospective not retrospective. Tech companies’ terms of service can’t and shouldn’t act as strict rules in hard cases — their purpose is to make the obvious cases quick to deal with.
Again, can tech companies ban anyone by relying on their terms of service? Sure. As citizens trying to puzzle these issues out, should we rely on applying terms of service as if they were well crafted laws to resolve difficult cases? No.
2. The logic flow of banning President Trump and why it’s wrong
Let’s try to do this succinctly.
If you support Twitter banning Trump, your argument probably goes something like this:
💬 We think that the events this week constituted an emergency situation because the president was encouraging a violent insurrection and we needed to stop him doing that…
💬 … so we are comfortable with Twitter having the power to curtail the ability of an elected president to communicate with citizens in order to prevent him inciting violence.
My argument in response is:
💬 Fine, I agree with the overall goal, but Twitter alone can never actually silence the president, they can only curtail his ability to communicate with citizens by banning him on their platform…
💬 … so what we are actually left with is:
- a president who can continue to incite violence on other platforms, and;
- the normalisation of unelected tech executives having the power to curtail a sitting president’s ability to communicate with citizens.
This is the worst of both worlds.
To my mind, you either ban the president from speaking at all (to prevent him from inciting violence), or you do nothing at all.
I can see a perfectly logical and consistent argument for banning the president from speaking at all. But practically, to stop the president from inciting violence, you would need to arrest him or at least serve him with some legal instrument to prevent him from communicating. You would need to silence him.
That is an extreme remedy. That is a remedy that should only be used in extreme circumstances, and with the highest level of transparency and accountability.
And we do have those remedies: if we think he is inciting insurrection, Congress can impeach him, Cabinet could enact the 25th amendment, or the police could arrest him. The deliberation on and implementation of those remedies is precisely what Congress, laws, judges, the police, and the whole apparatus of the state is for.
But just because those institutions are not acting in a way that we would like does not mean we are justified in going around those institutions to achieve our aims. That is a violation of the rule of law upon which our societies are built.
If you prefer to do nothing about his incitement of insurrection, then that is also logically consistent. But what we cannot have is a little from column A and a little from column B.
If we allow (and normalise) private, unelected and unaccountable entities to perform the functions that should rightly be done by our public institutions, we will be striking a monumental blow against liberalism and democracy.
3. A little story to illustrate my point (indulge me)
The year is 2028. The presidential election season is well underway and campaigning is fierce.
One of the key methods of engaging voters, particularly the prized demographic of Gen Z, is TikTok. While ‘TikTok US’ is now a distinct company from its Chinese parent company, rumours persist that Beijing still exerts control over it.
In their early primary debates, the Republican candidates have been fiercely debating how to deal with China. One up-and-coming Senator is particularly hawkish on China and suggested military intervention in the South China Sea.
Suddenly, a mere 48 hours before the all important New Hampshire primaries, the up-and-coming Senator’s TikTok account is suspended. No warning, no announcement; he just can’t communicate with his audience.
It takes a while, but the mainstream media eventually get wind of this and investigate, but TikTok executives waved away the controversy, saying:
it is a violation of our terms of service to use TikTok to incite, provoke or advocate for genocide, war, violations of sovereignty, or violence in general. Unfortunately, the up-and-coming Senator was deemed by our integrity unit to have violated these terms of service when late last month he called for the invasion of Chinese sovereign territory.
No one is overly outraged and pretty quickly the news cycle moves on. After all, social media companies have booted far more senior and important people than the up-and-coming Senator! He’s small fry!
Remember when Facebook booted that liberal congresswoman for joking that she would “like to send her opponent to the Gulags — if only we could turn Minnesota into Siberia”?
Or the time that that super famous country music star got drunk and posted on Snap that “someone oughta cut off the hands of these billionaires for stealing so much”?
And of course, the whole President Trump debacle… but that seems like decades ago now.
Fast forward: the up and coming Senator loses badly in New Hampshire — Gen Z voters ignored him. Soon after, he drops out of the Presidential race. No one really cares that he dropped out, and he fades from the news.
Interestingly, the eventual winner of the Republican nomination ended up becoming president. The president is a seasoned politician, knows how to play politics and funnily enough, his views on China continue to comply with TikTok’s terms of service.
4. Ending argument
The above story might seem a little far-fetched. But honestly, after the events of the last year, or even just the last week, I think it sounds squarely within the realm of the possible.
All of this is to say that Trump is the easy case. He all but called for violent insurrection in the United States. In a vacuum, no sensible person would lose too much sleep over him being banned from Twitter.
But we don’t exist in a vacuum. Actions reverberate into the future.
If we are comfortable with allowing unelected, unaccountable tech executives to curtail the speech of those we elect to represent us and advance our interests, then we have to be comfortable with that choice forever. Once unleashed, there will be no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Ask any good lawyer or policy maker and they will tell you: always make laws, rules and policies as if your enemy was going to use them against you.
Because in the future, they will.
If you want to read more about how to think about all this, I strongly suggest the work of Ben Thompson at Stratechery. He also recently did a great podcast episode on Trump and Twitter. He comes to a different conclusion than I do, but his logic is excellent.
Lastly, I’m the co-founder & writer of International Intrigue, a weekly foreign affairs newsletter that makes geopolitics enjoyable and accessible. I’d love you to check it out!👉 International Intrigue (substack.com)