The Great Deplatforming of 2021

Trump is getting blocked everywhere online, and one social media site ended up as collateral damage. What’s next in the online wars?

Image Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The fallout from the Capitol Hill riot continues, and the consequences of this “day of infamy” now include a widespread private-sector backlash against President Trump and the social media site Parler, which was a haven for many conservatives with allegiance to Trump.

The House impeached Trump Wednesday, but he had already been “impeached in the free market” and “canceled by corporate America,” says The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. Twitter permanently blocked the president’s account. Facebook temporarily froze Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, while also targeting content containing the phrase “stop the steal,” which refers to claims of election fraud. Google, Apple, Reddit, Snapchat, Pinterest and even e-commerce platform Shopify, payment services Paypal and Stripe, and gaming site Twitch all took varying steps to silence the president by freezing or deleting his accounts.

Trump had it coming. You don’t get a free pass when you fan the flames of fanaticism and insurrection, especially when you’re the most powerful person in the nation. The ugly scene that Trump and his inner circle incited on Jan. 6 resulted in deaths, injuries, property destruction and the threat of continued violence against congressional and state lawmakers.

But will the great digital deplatforming of 2021 go too far? Some argue it already has, with tech companies deleting not only the president’s accounts, but also hitting the social media site Parler with a digital death sentence. Apple and Google removed the Parler app from their app stores, and Amazon kicked it off its servers, forcing the site to go dark.

Parler billed itself as a true free speech haven, where anyone could gather and speak without fear of editing or reprisals. The site and its supporters rejected what they regarded as the over-moderation of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, where Trump and many of his supporters had been penalized for what were seen as false or misleading posts. Lacking much content oversight, Parler became a venue for racist banter, white supremacist rhetoric and even death threats.

Trump supporters insist that major digital platforms are “monopolies,” which is also what many progressives say whenever they don’t like a private-sector business decision. Such claims are ludicrous. There have never been more ways to get your message out, especially compared with the pre-internet and pre-cable days of media scarcity. Back then, we were stuck begging the local newspaper to run a letter to the editor or hoping for the impossible dream of getting some time on a local radio or television station. Or we could hand out pamphlets in the town square.

Alternatives to Parler

The internet and digital technology allowed us to escape the age of information poverty and gave us a cornucopia of new communications choices. Even with Parler gone, there are countless sites and services to choose from. In fact, since the Parler takedown, “alternative social apps and private messengers top the app stores,” according to TechCrunch. Those services include Signal, Telegram, MeWe, Gab and others. These crackdowns by large platforms could also spur even more decentralized services in coming months and years.

That being said, broad-based deplatforming is problematic when it casts too wide a net and ensnares too much good (or even just mundane) speech along with the bad. Parler had plenty of problematic content, but it also represented a competitor to the largest tech players. When the entire site went dark, the accounts of many other users—including myself—became collateral damage.

Parler has sued Amazon on antitrust grounds looking to be reinstated, and conservatives argue that the federal government must take regulatory steps to “save the Constitution from Big Tech.” These efforts are based on the preposterous notion that the First Amendment applies to private companies in the same fashion as it does to governments. Courts have rejected that notion repeatedly, and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the conservative majority in the 2019 case Manhattan v. Halleck that “merely hosting speech by others is not a traditional, exclusive public function and does not alone transform private entities into state actors subject to First Amendment constraints.” Another recent case noted that courts have “uniformly concluded that digital internet platforms that open their property to user-generated content do not become state actors.”

Simply put, the lawsuits and regulatory efforts that Trump supporters have pushed are not going anywhere. Meantime, conservatives need to be asking themselves about the wisdom of borrowing the regulate-and-sue playbook that the left has wielded for decades. Not only is it a betrayal of the First Amendment and property rights of private actors, but it also threatens to backfire on conservatives once the Biden administration and other left-leaning governments take advantage of those expanded powers.

The real threat associated with private deplatforming—whether in today’s digital world or the earlier analog media era—comes down to how much politics influences that decision. During the days when broadcast networks were America’s dominant media platforms, politicians regularly engaged in “regulation-by-raised-eyebrow”: they used subtle and sometimes direct threats of political action if licensed radio and television operators did not self-censor content that politicians or regulators didn’t like. It became a convenient way to get around those pesky First Amendment limits on direct government content control. Similarly, just a decade ago, politicians such as Sen. Joe Lieberman and others successfully pushed for Wikileaks and related services to be removed from some major private servers, such as Amazon’s.

Scoring Points

This week’s private-sector push to take down Parler is more interesting because it seems to have been a genuinely spontaneous corporate effort to deplatform an entire service without much pressure from government officials to do so. Of course, many on the left hated Parler and wanted it dealt with in some way, and the move will certainly score points with the new administration. But the presence of so much extremist content on the site made it easier for private players to collectively knock out the service without much prompting.

The best hope now might be that, with Trump exiting Washington, the daily digital conflagrations he inspired might subside a bit and we see a return to normalcy, or something akin to it. Perhaps that will also lead to fewer efforts by social media platforms to take down content. Generally speaking, these sites would prefer to host as much content as possible to expand their networks and make more money.

On the other hand, these moderation and deplatforming debates could grow far more heated. The ultimate problem here lies in the tribalism of modern politics and the extremism of many of the most vociferous leaders on both sides of the spectrum. In his recent essay, Dan Rothschild observed how “the larger climate of political violence, intimidation and destruction that has in recent years become accepted and even encouraged, including by swaths of elite opinion,” now raises a sort of existential threat to the future of our Republic.

This leaves private actors—especially those operating massive speech platforms—in the impossible position of being the arbiters of truth, taste and civic virtue. As I noted in an earlier essay, many on the left demand that digital companies do more to remove content they view as harmful, while many on the right insist those firms do less to the exact same content. What we’re left with is a baseline expectation that platforms will somehow “devise a Goldilocks formula to get the content balance just right, even though it would be impossible to make both sides happy.”

While the Great Deplatforming of 2021 begins a contentious new chapter in media policy and democratic deliberation, it is worth recalling that the leading media technologies of every era inevitably get caught up in broader societal skirmishes. We shouldn’t have believed it would be any different for the internet. But the increasing politicization of seemingly everything in our modern world means that tech companies are now part of an even bigger drama with bigger stakes, and still have no clear way of striking that elusive content moderation balance to keep the peace among the warring tribes of modern America.

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