To quote Lindsey Graham – something I never thought I’d do – enough is enough.
In the aftermath of the assault on the U.S. Capitol, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites banned Donald Trump from using their services. My responses went quickly from glee to “it took them long enough” to “better late than never.”
Until Trump, U.S. Presidents mostly spoke to the people through the media. They would hold news conferences where they’d make remarks, then reporters would ask questions to follow up on things that were omitted, unclear, or untrue. The whole thing would be presented as a newspaper article or a TV or radio report, where the President’s comments could be placed in context.
Presidents speaking directly to the people goes back to Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” on the radio – every President occasionally makes addresses. But those were few enough to be occasions for discussion – again, with commentators providing context, and occasionally, rebuttal.
Trump went straight to the people, usually via Twitter. Now, there’s no legal requirement that politicians filter their messages through the media. But the lack of that filter, plus the limitations of 280 characters, meant that Trump’s messages were usually devoid of context.
More importantly, they were often devoid of facts. Long before he was President, Trump was one of the loudest voices in the “birther” movement – the people insisting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be President, something that was demonstrably false. This complete disregard for the truth has continued through two campaigns and his presidency.
Lies and conspiracy theories
There is no constitutional right to spread lies and conspiracy theories.
There is also no constitutional right to incite insurrection. Trump has been crying “election fraud!” since before the election started, despite the fact that there is no evidence of widespread fraud, much less that the election was “rigged.” His own cabinet confirmed that the election was clean – he fired those who told him what he didn’t want to hear.
But that kept his base riled up, and when he encouraged them, thousands showed up at the Capitol to protest the confirmation of Biden’s win. Hundreds forced their way in, disrupting the confirmation process, vandalizing the building, and causing the deaths of at least five people.
If Trump hadn’t been tweeting lies for months, there would have been no insurrection.
Even after responsible people in both parties were encouraging him to denounce the insurrection, he continued to insist the election was “stolen.”
Actions have consequences. Words can be weapons. By all means we must prosecute the people who attacked the Capitol and hand down appropriate jail sentences. But we cannot ignore what got them there.
It is blatantly irresponsible to allow Trump to continue inciting insurrection – which he surely would do, because it’s what he’s always done.
There is no First Amendment right to Twitter
In case anyone is unclear, the First Amendment applies only to government censorship, not to private entities. Or, as others have said, freedom of the press only applies to people who own a printing press. You have no right to have your opinion published by The New York Times, CNN, or Fox News. They choose what they publish, period.
Are social media platforms publishers? Utilities? Something else? There needs to be a public debate on this, but under the current law they are private entities and if you violate their terms of service, it’s perfectly legal for them to kick you off.
Banning Trump is a dangerous precedent
I cheered Trump getting kicked off Twitter. My libertarian and leftist friends were less thrilled.
Some of them believe there should never be any restrictions on speech as a matter of principle, no matter what the consequences. Others are concerned that if they ban Trump today, they could ban someone they like tomorrow (and in some cases, they already have). These are not idle concerns.
I’m part of a minority religion. I occasionally hear Christians calling for me to be censored because I’m “harming the Kingdom of God.” I occasionally hear atheists calling for me to be silenced because I’m “spreading unreason.” Those of us who live and work outside the mainstream (whether spiritual, political, or otherwise) are always in danger of being silenced, or just shouted down. There is a need to protect unpopular speech.
But the answer can’t be “anything goes” for reasons that were made abundantly clear on January 6.
We judge what Trump or anyone else says based on what their words inspire others to do.
Our common society puts a lot of emphasis on intent. So does the law: intent makes the difference between murder, manslaughter, and self defense. Some people are arguing that Trump never intended for his supporters to storm the Capitol. That may or may not be true. I tend to agree with the Articles of Impeachment: “He … made statements that, in context, encouraged—and foreseeably resulted in—lawless action at the Capitol.”
Results matter. You may not mean to kill someone when you drive drunk, but if you do it will not be considered an accident and you will be held accountable.
Trump is ultimately responsible for the insurrection. He must be held accountable, and he must be constrained from further incitements to violence.
What is the alternative?
The remedy for bad governance is an election. We had that, Trump lost, and on January 20 – if not before – he will no longer be President. That stops him from continuing his regressive policies and destructive governance.
What is the remedy for his lies and incitement of insurrection, which he has shown will never stop?
This isn’t speech offensive to some that must be tolerated in the name of a free society. This isn’t politically unpopular speech that is constitutionally protected and rightly so. This isn’t even some bizarre religious belief based on a long-outdated cultural norm that is still meaningful to some people.
These are lies and conspiracy theories that incite violence and undermine confidence in the democratic process.
What is the alternative to kicking him off Twitter?
That’s not a rhetorical question. If you have a better alternative, let’s hear it. But “just ignore him” isn’t a viable option, because too many people won’t.
The solution to abuse of power is checks and balances
I understand the reluctance to grant this kind of power to corporations and their leaders. Or rather, to affirm it, since they currently have it. There is always the opportunity for abuse and corruption.
At the same time, making everything the Wild West with no rules and accountability presents opportunities for another kind of abuse – the kind we’re experiencing now.
We need not and should not accept one form of abuse to avoid another form of abuse. We need checks and balances to prevent any abuse.
The law has not caught up to the internet era. My preference is for “Big Tech” to be treated like a utility and heavily regulated. Twitter, Facebook, and other tech companies should have meaningful oversight by people subject to elections.
Where ever the line is, Trump is over it
Like any other public policy, we can and should debate where to draw the lines of acceptable conduct on social media. My preference is for few rules loosely enforced on ideas, clear rules strictly enforced on personal attacks and harassment, and no tolerance on calls for violence – or for spreading known lies.
Maybe you think the rules should be looser. Maybe you think they should be tighter. I’m all for having that debate.
But where ever you draw the line, Trump’s lies, conspiracy theories, and incitement of insurrection are on the wrong side of it.
The only problem I have with Twitter kicking him off is that they took so long to do it.
I’m not going to entertain whataboutism
If you can’t see that people damaging property because they’re mad about the police killing Black people is qualitatively different from people invading the Capitol (some with the intent to take hostages) because their guy lost the election and they believed his lies, I don’t think we have enough common ground to have a conversation.
That said, if you want to make substantive proposals about where “the line” should be drawn that would negatively impact left-wing protesters, go ahead.
If you want to complain about Black Lives Matter and Antifa, do it on your own blog. Comments that whine about “hypocrisy” and that engage in whataboutism will be deleted without warning.