You don’t have a legal right to tweet. It seems to be an obvious point, but the outrage in the wake of Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Donald Trump from its platform suggests that this obvious point still eludes a lot of people.
So, let me be plain: It’s not a free speech violation if Twitter bans you from tweeting. Twitter is a private company; the First Amendment concerns government regulation of speech; and last I checked, Twitter isn’t the government.
As such, Twitter doesn’t have to let you tweet. Twitter allows you to tweet as long as you follow the rules. If you break the rules, Twitter will snatch your account. If it’s a minor violation of Twitter’s terms of service, you might get a 12-hour suspension. But if you really go whole hog and use Twitter to try to—I don’t know—start a second fucking Civil War, then you’ll find yourself on the business end of a permanent Twitter ban.
That was the fate of one Donald J. Trump who, after his personal account was banned last week, went on to be banned from the official POTUS account. And after that, he presumably begged his friends to pretty please give him their phones, which resulted in bans for the Trump campaign’s official Twitter account and the account of one of his advisers.
And to that I say, good.
Trump used his Twitter account to incite his supporters to cosplay as the bad guys in one of those movies starring Gerard Butler. Five people died. If not for the heroics of a good man whose name is literally Officer Goodman, members of Congress could very well have been killed. These insurrectionists were armed, they placed pipe bombs at the Republican and Democratic headquarters, they set up gallows (while “Hang Mike Pence” trended on Twitter), and they were carrying police zip ties. So, if Twitter gently took Trump’s account out of his tiny hands and whispered, “There there, that’s enough out of you,” why am I supposed to care?
Because it could happen to me too. That’s what commentators have been solemnly warning.
Well, guess what. It’s been happening to me—and to people like me—for years.
Have you tried being Black on Facebook?
Let me put it more bluntly: Have you ever been “Zucked,” i.e., had your account suspended or banned due to your benign comments about white dudes and patriarchy being flagged as hate speech? Plenty of Black Facebook users have. If you write a post as benign as “White men are so fragile”? That’ll definitely get you Zucked. Hell, if you’re Black and simply type the word “white” on Facebook, there’s a 75 percent chance you’re going to get good and Zucked.
And Twitter’s not any better. If you’re Black, you’re one-and-a-half times more likely to have your tweets flagged as offensive. And if you tweet in AAVE—that’s African American Vernacular English—you’re more than twice as likely to have your tweets flagged as offensive. Why? Because the algorithms are racist. Imagine that. Racist algorithms. Zucking hell.
And if you’re a sex worker trying to post content on social media? Good luck with that. In 2018, Tumblr instituted a restrictive policy on nudity that essentially killed Tumblr as a place where sex workers could share content. It’s a good thing that some sex workers are finding success on OnlyFans because lord knows, Instagram clutches its pearls if it sees so much as a nipple on its platform. In fact, Instagram’s puritanical rules have ensnared not just sex workers, but sex educators as well. How’s that for absurd?
These people are having their speech censored on social media every day.
But the president can just incite a violent insurrection that kills five people and I’m supposed to weep for the death of free speech if Twitter shuts down his account?
Nope. I don’t have that emotional energy.
If you violate Twitter’s terms of service by inciting mob violence and if you continue inciting violence after being expressly told not to, the price you pay is a permanent ban from Twitter. That seems fair to me. But commentators on the left and right don’t see it that way.
“Mao would be proud,” tweeted Donald Jr. as he joined the cavalcade of conservatives complaining that fascism (or maybe communism; I don’t think they know the difference) had at long last arrived on America’s shores.
On the left, the concern wasn’t so much that the Twitter ban was a harbinger of communism (or fascism; again, I don’t think conservatives know the difference), but rather that we have ceded control of the digital marketplace of ideas to a few elite tech billionaires.
And that may be true: There’s certainly a conversation to be had about the future of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Arguably, these social media platforms have replaced the town square as the marketplace of ideas. (They have during this pandemic, that’s for sure.) And there’s a case to be made that due to Facebook and Twitter’s growing political influence, allowing an elite group of tech billionaires to control the digital marketplace of ideas will harm society in the long run.
But why do these conversations seem to grab the country’s consciousness by the balls when it’s white people being denied access to social media? Sure, sometimes a commentator or organization will give a passing nod to the ways in which these policies hurt marginalized people. But marginalized people are never centered in these conversations. We’re an afterthought. And, frankly, it makes me not too keen on bleating about the glory that is freedom of speech.
Especially when the people who are centered in the conversations about freedom of speech are usually people who just want a safe space to say the n-word. They don’t like political correctness. Bigotry is their life force. And it alarms me that the growing consensus seems to be that amplification of bigotry is simply the price which a society that believes in free speech must pay to remain free.
But this ignores that bigotry chips away at the free speech of people who rarely have a forum to speak in the first place. And if we continue to center people like Donald Trump in conversations about free speech, then you can be sure that the digital marketplace of ideas will continue to be as systemically racist as the meat-space marketplace has been.
And where’s the zucking justice in that?