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Sahyouni ’21: Big Tech shuts down the marketplace of ideas

Over the past few years, the feud between conservatives and Silicon Valley tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter has moved to the forefront of political discourse. That battle reached a boiling point in the aftermath of January 6, 2021, when a mob comprising roughly 800 of the 30 thousand attendants of a Trump rally broke into the United States Capitol building. As ugly as the attack was, it also served as a green light for Big Tech to instigate a "Red Purge," when they deplatformed a plethora of conservative voices, from the sitting President Donald Trump to the entirety of Parler, the free speech-centered, alt-tech app favored by many on the political right. 

Make no mistake, it is well within the rights of private corporations to determine who they provide their services to. Nevertheless, I'm more concerned with what they ought to do, not what they can do. The actions of big tech companies earlier this year were unethical, and they chip away at the very foundation of free speech in America. 

This claim, I admit, is a bold one. Along with most folks left of center, the tech companies themselves fiercely reject this assertion. For example, Twitter and Facebook, who both banned former President Trump, maintain that they are open and non-partisan platforms committed to free speech. In their view, Mr. Trump incited an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, and banning him was a necessary step to prevent future calls for violence. Similarly, the cadre of companies which booted Parler claim that it allowed violent threats to persist on its platform. 

Why exactly would anyone die on the hill of protecting violent speech? Well, virtually no one in the political mainstream is, and I have no desire to do it either. Calls for violence are criminal and cannot be tolerated. But despite what these platforms may tell themselves and the public, they don't apply their standards impartially. Their justifications for the Red Purge are misguided at best and disingenuous at worst. As I see it, Big Tech only wanted to take advantage of the tragedy at the Capitol building to silence voices and crush competition that they personally disapproved of.

Of course, any claim as strong as this one demands a look at the facts. 

First, take the deplatforming of Donald Trump. In his now infamous Jan. 6 speech, former President Trump repeated a series of reckless and irresponsible claims regarding election fraud. I concede that much of his conduct following the 2020 presidential election regarding its legitimacy, represented in many ways by this speech, should be criticized. But the question at hand is different: Did he incite a crowd to attack the Capitol on Twitter or anywhere else on Jan. 6? The answer to that question is simply, no.

Trump explicitly called for a peaceful protest at the Capitol building. In his speech, the former president said, "I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard." How could Trump have called a crowd to violence while at the same time promoting and expecting that they should be peaceful? 

Critics of the 45th president might allege something weaker: that Trump's raising of the temperature in the political ecosystem had something to do with the Capitol violence. I almost agree but with some qualifications. Heated rhetoric like "they are trying to steal the election" can create a political environment where violence is more likely. Repeating unsubstantiated claims is, however, different from inciting violence, which requires a literal call to commit violence. Twitter banning Trump for his charged rhetoric under the guise of silencing violent speech, while allowing similarly fiery politicians on both sides of the aisle free rein, clearly shows their moderation to be arbitrary and motivated by self-interest, not a desire to squash violence. 

The most concerning consequence of the Red Purge, aside from banning Trump, was the deplatforming of Parler. In the aftermath of the failed insurrection, app store moderators Apple and Google along with web service provider Amazon banned the free speech-based Twitter alternative from access to their services. This meant that Parler was not only removed from the Google Play and Apple app stores, but was also fundamentally rendered inoperable, as the very servers it depended on were pulled out from under it. The reasoning applied here, according to the tech companies, is that Parler allowed the dissemination of calls to violence on their platform. This, if true, would be a violation of these companies' terms of service.

Yet, unsurprisingly, Big Tech did not apply their rules evenly. I admit, Parler did let some calls for violence, including certain plans of the Capitol attacks, slip through its moderation cracks in the lead-up to and aftermath of Jan. 6. But there is no reason to believe that these slips stem from malignance or that Parler was the only platform that allowed violent speech to proliferate. 

Parler explicitly forbids fighting words or threats of harm. It implements a flag and review system for questionable posts, not unlike the mechanism that Twitter has for removing forbidden content. The only difference is that Twitter has a multi-billion dollar tech infrastructure and thousands of employees, while Parler is a small startup of 30 people. Parler has a tiny fraction of the capacity to moderate content when compared to Twitter. Even so, you can find violent posts on Twitter any day of the week, and Facebook also platformed some insurrectionists in their planning of the Capitol attack. So Amazon wants us to believe that Parler alone is in violation of their terms of service, all the while it hosts Twitter's periodically trending "#killtrump" hashtag without so much as a word of criticism?  Really? I don't trust Google, Apple or Amazon to fairly enforce their rules, and you shouldn't either. 

This brings us to the larger takeaway from the events earlier this month: Big Tech companies have backtracked on their commitment to a culture of free speech. Silicon Valley isn't just interested in silencing speech they deem violent, but also opinions that they just don't like. Along with the names already mentioned, as part of the Red Purge Twitter also banned several people close to Donald Trump who continued to claim that he won the 2020 election. And while I agree those claims lack the prerequisite evidence, censoring these voices sets a dangerous precedent.

We ought to value free speech in America because it protects unpopular views. History proves, in fact, that ideas widely supported by the public or even so-called "experts" are sometimes shown to be wrong in the future. When the Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus, for instance, argued that the sun was at the center of our solar system in 1543, that finding clashed with centuries of scientific and popular consensus. One wonders if the heliocentric theory would have been banned on Twitter had it existed in the 16th century. Or consider more recently how the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci, in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, advised against the wearing of face coverings by normal, healthy citizens. Since then, the scientific consensus has shifted. But ought social media companies to have censored posts that disagreed with Fauci at the time? We can see in retrospect, obviously not. 

The best solution to defend sound views, however unpopular, is the free market of ideas, where I say my opinion, you say yours and everyone else analyzes the facts and makes their own conclusions. Granted, this way is not without its problems. Some baseless and ugly conspiracy theories will inevitably rise to prominence, and as a truth-seeking society, we must do everything we can to bring these myths to light. But an alternative world where Big Tech moderates the debate from the top down according to their hand-picked fact checkers and unevenly applied guidelines is a far darker reality. We need to revive the culture of free speech in America. Just don't count on the folks in Silicon Valley to be part of the solution anytime soon. 

Donnie Sahyouni ’21 can be reached at donnie_sahyouni@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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