Two weeks ago in a year-end column on media wishes for 2021, I said I hoped the press would marginalize President Donald Trump once he left office. But I didn’t think the process would happen this fast.
And, in truth, I was thinking more of network and cable news than Big Tech, which has been disgraceful in ignoring calls from people like me for CEOs to accept their gatekeeper responsibilities of monitoring and removing certain kinds of dangerous content.
Big Tech and smaller tech certainly lowered the boom on Trump in the wake of the insurrection he instigated last Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Not only has he been banned by Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube, he’s also been kicked off Shopify, TikTok, Twitch, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and others.
Meanwhile, Apple, Google and Amazon ended their financial relationships with Parler, the Trump-friendly social media network that was largely used to plan the attack on the Capitol building, essentially shutting down another possible site for Trump to connect with his followers. Apple and Google removed the Parler app, while Amazon took Parler off its server.
Trump is rapidly becoming a man without a medium, and as both a media critic and citizen, I could not be happier about that. Twitter and cable TV were the twin pillars of his media strategy in 2016. He had all the friendly cable time he wanted on Fox News, and he could libel and bully his opponents without fear of retribution on Twitter.
His new reality: He has lost access to his 88.7 million followers on Twitter, and he is feuding with Fox because, for once, it has not been blindly repeating his lies about winning the election or defending his seditious actions. If you had the choice of only one thing you could do to rein in Trump, it would be to ban him from Twitter, where his nasty voice resonated so powerfully with so many of the medium’s hard-core denizens.
(And, no, Trump, this is not a First Amendment matter. None of the platform executives is denying you the right to speak your lies and seditious exhortations to your goon following. They’re just saying you cannot do it on their platforms.)
But I have no praise for any of the tech titans who have finally taken away the president’s platforms. Where were those masters of social media while he used their outlets to poison the civic conversation of American life for the last four years?
For decades, I argued against any media regulation that might infringe on free expression and First Amendment guarantees. But what we learned about Facebook’s role with Russian-made-and-bought ads in the 2016 presidential election forced me to rethink one of my core sets of beliefs and conclude there is a need for government regulation ― as problematic as that might be with some of the people we have running the government these days.
I admit it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to be arguing for government regulation of social media at the same time as Trump. But he is clearly doing it to punish people who did not do what he wants them do. I have been calling for regulation for more than three years after months of researching, reporting and analyzing the issue in the wake of the 2016 election.
As a society, we don’t build freeways and then let everyone drive on them in whatever manner they wish. We post speed limits, we put up signs advising people how to drive and we have authorities monitoring and punishing bad behavior. Why shouldn’t we post and enforce limits on how social media are used, especially when we see the damage they can do and the unwillingness of their owners to self-regulate responsibly?
That’s essentially how we wound up with regulation of TV and radio by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1930s. It was modeled in part on the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated the movement of goods between states over roads, waterways and rails.
Once again, technology has run way ahead of philosophy. We let the tech titans have their way without thinking through the implications of their inventions and how they might change our institutions and lives if we didn’t put guardrails on them. Social media changed elections and governance exponentially ― and mainly for the worse in Trump’s hands the last few years.
It’s a little late in the game, but let’s at least start to have a serious discussion about how we want to handle social media as a society going forward.
David Zurawik wrote this piece for The Baltimore Sun.