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The Public Should Regulate Silicon Valley — Not the Other Way Around

Twitter profited from Donald Trump's racist outbursts for years, only to delete his account a few days before his departure. A figure with such media platform runs no risk of being "no platformed" — but tech giants still have too much power over what the rest of us say.

Tech giants have gone from risking being pariahed by all sides of politics, to accepting the mantle of arbiter of truth from grateful politicians and commentators.(Unsplash)

Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is a poetic end to his performance.

In 2016, the outsider-insider outmaneuvered his enemies and seized power with the aid of an aggressive, nimble base stitched together online. Now the failing God-Emperor’s soliloquy is silenced by the very force who helped him come to power, amid the tragicomic denouement of armed furries and blood on the Capitol floor.

But beneath the aesthetics lie the politics. Twitter birthed Trump, giving him a platform that incentivized his every behavior. A format where 280-character zingers replace serious debate, conflict is rewarded, and attack mobs form and dissipate at light speed was always fertile ground for the hard right. A blank-slate AI became a neo-Nazi within twenty-four hours of Twitter exposure.

Trump and Twitter both offer the promise of popular power and participation whilst strengthening existing social relations and ordering them to extract further profit. Facebook is less theatrical and more intimate, but equally prone to rapid poisoning, as anyone who has witnessed the conversion of a mild-mannered local history forum into an explosion of nativist racism can attest.

The problem for the tech giants is that after Trump, such criticism went mainstream. Until the post-recession unravelling of politics, the “Californian Ideology’s combination of the free-wheeling spirit of hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of yuppies” had positioned Big Tech benignly. They were in deep with the deep state, undoubtedly knowing more about information warfare than Pentagon generals. And yet they were simultaneously championing libertarian free expression; creating democratized spaces where if enough of you yelled at your leaders from your bedrooms, those leaders may even be compelled to respond.

But after Brexit and Trump’s 2016 win, things changed. From democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to centrist Conservative Damian Collins in the UK, politicians hauled in tech bosses for highly public grillings. They were made to account for why their biomes had spawned hives of hatred and misinformation into the body politic. In this space, deeper layers of critique opened up on all sides.

Richard Seymour’s “The Twittering Machine” and Wendy Liu’s “Abolish Silicon Valley” challenged tech’s practices from the Left. Shoshana Zuboff’s bestseller argued that the Big Four had mutated capitalism itself. Thirty-eight million people watched The Social Dilemma, where “experts sounded the alarm on their own creations.” On the right, the UK’s Daily Telegraph, who had backed the Brexit campaign and its unprecedented use of social technology, begun blaming tech giants for social ills like poor teenage mental health. Suddenly the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys faced a withering triple barrage of conservative anti-modernity, liberal panic about disorder and demagoguery, and socialist opposition to unfettered capitalism.

Survival Strategy

Silicon Valley are strategists first and foremost. They concentrate technical expertise to leverage huge quantities of raw information into commercial success, through product innovation but also through general political and market interventions. By the end of the decade their lowest-cost strategy was an alliance with liberalism.

Rhetorical commitments to racial justice and gender equality came cost-free (except for igniting the ire of right-wingers who would then use social media networks to berate them, creating profitable rows.) Many like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg were already ideologically committed to a superficial politics of equality, and in fairness were probably genuinely repulsed by the Trumpian far right. The polls were beginning to swing for Joe Biden. All roads were leading to a rapprochement with liberalism, a long-overdue partial clampdown on fascists, and turning on Trump.

These strategies are not merely about survival but increasing power. Zuboff describes lucidly how tech firms have repeatedly implemented coup tactics; suddenly staking an unprecedented claim on something, defining it as the new normal, and taking advantage of public / political ignorance of both existing technologies and plausible alternatives.

In normal circumstances, denying a world leader access to mass communication would be seen as shocking. In circumstances where said leader has just worked up a mob to smash its way across the shining hill of the foremost world power, there was a unique opportunity to lever much of liberalism and the Left into accepting and even applauding the precedent being established.

The giants have gone from risking being pariahed by all sides of politics, to accepting the mantle of arbiter of truth from grateful politicians and commentators. This dynamic is not just at risk of being used against the Left and anyone else deemed outside a narrow zone of acceptability. It is already being used against the Left.

In the United States, Instagram recently flagged as “false” a post containing political comment about the 1994 Crime Bill and its links to carceral racism. In the UK, left-wing MP Zarah Sultana’s criticism of the Conservative government’s (lack of) COVID-19 strategy has spuriously been labeled as fake news.

Trump’s register is uniquely developed for Twitter, and the insurgent right benefits from using social media to grow their communities and outfox mainstream operators. But they also have huge cash reserves and control of news networks. The Left depends far more on social media for organizing and mass communication in the context of both fewer financial resources, and legacy media which largely refuses to treat leftists seriously or fairly.

Imposing New Realities

Banning Trump is Twitter’s strategic masterstroke. Do you have a problem with how digital communication is being used? Any conversation about genuine democratization or accountability of mass communication is off the table; the only possible solution offered is to cede more power to people who are interested in no less than shaping and directing the totality of human behavior.

This does not answer the question “was Twitter right to ban Trump?” But that is not a particularly interesting question in itself. Perhaps the ban is justified, it is certainly ironically amusing. The context in which it takes place; and the new assumption that this system is how such incidents are to be resolved, is much more concerning.

There is a line given by a senior Bush White House staffer in a candid anonymous interview in the 2000s which achieved cultural infamy when quoted in a 2017 album by The National.

You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality … we’ll act again, creating other new realities…. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The message captures the approach taken by Trump, by tech firms and other capitalists, and by many more political actors — that is, an attempt to use the current period of chaos to make rapid incursions and impose new realities.

Silicon Valley, as guardian of public discourse, is one such new reality, and those breathing a sigh of relief that the democratic crisis is over with the self-defeat of the QAnon putsch are breathing far too soon. In the wreckage of that putsch is a centrism which has developed ever more authoritarian tendencies, a belligerent Trumpism that has no interest in accepting defeat, and a technical elite who have staked a bold new claim to both defining and enforcing truth. It is an environment in which right-wing anti-democrats of all shades can thrive.