Social media and tech giants worked overtime this past week.
January 6, 2021, went down in history as the day when armed right-wing extremists invaded the US Capitol to disrupt Congress’s confirmation of Joseph Biden as the 46th President of the nation. President Donald Trump acted as the catalyst when he incited his more rabid followers on Twitter. He drove home the narrative of the Democratic party “stealing” the presidential election from the Republicans.
The aftermath? Five dead, many more arrested, a delayed confirmation of President-elect Biden that went into the wee hours of the morning, and the digital exile of President Trump.
Facebook set the ball rolling the next day when founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the decision to deactivate Trump’s profile. On Jan. 8, Twitter’s employees handed a robust letter to CEO Jack Dorsey. They called for Trump’s removal along with more transparency around internal communications. They also demanded an investigation into how Twitter’s own “public policy decisions led to the amplification of serious anti-democratic threats.”
The domino effect
It wasn’t long before the snowballing effect went into motion. Instagram, Snapchat, and even Pinterest, among others, banned Trump from their platforms. But not all bans operated equally. While Zuckerberg stated the block was indefinite, it would “at least” stay in place until Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. In what seemed like cross-platform unity, Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri took to Twitter to announce a 24-hour ban.
The punishment didn’t stop at Trump. His more aggressive digital sympathizers also faced the heat. Both Amazon and the Apple App Store gave Parler (a social media platform for the far right) the boot.
But this doesn’t mean it’s gone for good. Social media researcher Jennifer Grygiel informed NPR that “they are making sure that, you know, they don’t support and essentially provide the infrastructure to a company that is dangerous at this point.” Parler is still able to set up their company and to run it. “They just need to do it more independently,” she said.
The need for regulation
The insurgence fomented at the Capitol seemed to shake awake social media moguls like never before. These platforms always provided the loudspeaker and soapbox for anyone who signed up for their service. But now such punitive measures proved that they can just as swiftly snatch away access. It reincarnated a decades-old debate on internet regulation.
Many Republicans view Trump’s ban as an attack on free speech. But Grygiel pointed out that social media usage by high-ranking officials is very much a cultural marker and not a requirement. She said: “Unfortunately, the president has been systematically pushing out propaganda and circumventing the free press for years by using social media. And who says the president needed to tweet?” Grygiel advocated for the regulation of social media. She vouched for the need to monitor harmful speech from now on because the violence at the Capitol is already a dangerous precedent.
The influence of the social network leaked into physical spaces too. The most recent severing coming from the PGA of America, the home of one of golf’s premier global male championships. They cut ties with the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to host the championship in 2022. The club frequently featured the tournament but now the PGA fears it would be “detrimental” to their brand.
Re-examining power dynamics
Using social media as a tool for violence characterized unrest in the 21st century. But historically, politicians have used polarizing rhetoric to target the disenfranchised. Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the violence in Rwanda and the Balkans testify this. Lately, India faced its own riots in early 2020. Curiously enough, it was incited by a local politician of the ruling Hindu nationalist party who was looking to regain footing after losing an election. His fiery words towards the Muslim minority incited extremist Hindu mobs at a rally. It resulted in unbridled violence towards the Muslim minority in New Delhi, the capital.
Trump’s ban throws light on the power held by Big Media. While the blanket ban favored public safety, it also showed who truly was (and still is) in control. The New York Times summed it up: “In the end, two billionaires from California did what legions of politicians, prosecutors, and power brokers had tried and failed to do for years.”
But tech moguls like Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have repeatedly come under fire for this very control. The former’s repeated mishandling of private data even sparked high-profile hearings. The rise of fascism and the delayed steps to curb it made the world more divisive than ever, even spawning a Hydra effect. Hope exists for future generations when it comes to tackling such prickly issues. For those still here, this is the food for thought: was the widespread ban too little, too late?