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Trump & Twitter: Moral issues

Twitter: Why Liberty Should Trump Property

Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House.

Twitter’s deletion of Trump’s account was not a wise decision....

What happened in Washington DV on 6 January when the Capitol was stormed was appalling, and ought to be condemned in the strongest terms possible. These were ugly scenes, Barbarians inside the gate. The rule of law should prevail, not a mob. It is however an intricate moral question how to allocate responsibility for the attack. Most would agree that those who commit particular acts should be held responsible for them, not other people, and on this view the attackers themselves are clearly guilty and should be punished accordingly. I would even find it plausible that everyone is guilty in the group that went beyond barriers and entered the Capitol building, including those individuals who did no more than that. They were accomplices, not only onlookers, although their guilt is obviously not as serious as that of the thugs who broke windows and battered policemen. This would imply individual responsibility for particular acts and collective responsibility for participation in the riot. But how far would the collective responsibility extend? Do others, such as President Trump, share any responsibility with the mob?

One of my teachers in the distant past, British philosopher David Miller, argues in his book National Responsibility and Global Justice that collective responsibility makes sense. His discussion of a riot is illuminating. ‘Different participants in the mob act in different ways. Some actively attack persons or property; others shout abuse or issue threates; yet others play a more passive role, running alongside the activists, urging them on and contributing generally to the atmosphere of excitement and fear,’ Miller writes. ‘The specific intentions of each participant at the beginning of the riot may have been different: some may have started out meaning to inflict physical damage; others may have wanted to make a political point; and so forth. What matters is that each person took part with the same general attitude—“teaching them a lesson”, “showing them that we mean business”, etc.—and each made some causal contribution to the final outcome, whether this involved engaging directly in destructive acts, or merely in supporting and encouraging those who did.’ On this criterion, by his inflammatory rhetoric President Trump certainly seems to bear some moral responsibility for the attack, even if he did not directly participate in it and even if he may not be guilty of having broken any letter of the law.

But was Twitter right in deleting Trump’s account permanently, as they did after the attack? I would hardly question their legal right to do so, as the law stands. But was it a prudent move? My libertarian friends claim that this is not a case of censorship because Twitter is a private company which can cancel its contract with any customer at any time, especially if that customer has violated the terms of service, as Trump has repeatedly done, they add. If people are unhappy with this decision, they can simply go elsewhere. My libertarian friends have a point, and certainly Trump’s behaviour after his electoral defeat was indefensible. But I think that the moral issue is more complicated. Twitter, and a few other internet giants such as Amazon, Youtube and Facebook, have what almost amounts to a monopoly on online communication. They control the most important virtual ‘roads’ by which we can reach one another for business or pleasure. Go elsewhere? Whereto? Their possible abuse of power is therefore a serious matter. This can be illustrated by a thought experiment. Assume that all the roads in a country are private, and that they are all owned by three companies. It so happens that the directors of those three companies are all bigots, and they have decided to ban all female drivers (just like women did not have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia until two years ago, incidentally). Would libertarians say that this was all right? That property should overrule liberty? ‘Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus.’

Personally, I would prefer means of communication such as roads, the traditional media and the new social media to be privately owned. But if such companies are in a dominant position tantamount to a monopoly, I would find their possible abuse of power problematic. There is a public sphere where the rules of behaviour should be stricter than in a private club, and companies serving as means of communication are partly in this public sphere, at least when they are in a dominant position. Owners of private roads should not be able to ban cars driven by women, and owners of private social media should not be able to ban conservatives just because their left-wing staff detest them. In taking this position, I am influenced by my conversations with American philosopher Robert Nozick in the early 1980s. He said to me: “I am a libertarian, but I think that the weakest point of libertarianism is when property tries to squeeze out liberty. Consider the case when all land is privately owned and the landowners jointly decide to deny the right of way to somebody, perhaps because he holds very unpopular views. This is something I would find unacceptable. Or imagine the case of a spaceship with a supply of oxygen for a crew of three people. If foolishly two of them lose their share in the oxygen supply to the third one, say in a drunken brawl or a game of poker, the winner is not entitled to extort from them all their holdings down on earth in exchange for oxygen. In such cases liberty should trump property. This is where I disagree with Murray Rothbard and other extreme libertarians who hold that property should always prevail, come what come may. This is the difference between their propertarianism and my libertarianism.”

Twitter’s cancellation of Trump’s account is of course not the only relevant example where the social media may be in conflict with freedom of expression. Amazon refuses to sell books deemed to be offensive or hostile to the Jewish, Muslim, black, gay and lesbian communities, but apparently happily sells books offensive or hostile to Christians. Most books banned by Amazon are probably composed by odious bigots, crackpots, and fantasists, but perhaps one should argue with them, or alternatively not dignify them with a response, instead of simply trying to silence them. Private censorship seems less harmful than public censorship because there are alternatives: you can sell your stuff somewhere else. But what if there are no alternatives? Another example is how both Twitter and Facebook in 2016 and 2019 respectively cancelled the popular accounts of English contrarian Milo Yiannopoulos. As a result he was cut off from his many followers who had contributed to his cause. Subsequently he went bankrupt. But since he had managed to alienate almost all civilised people, few were prepared to take up his cause. But if this happens to Yiannopoulos today, could it not happen to you tomorrow? For example if you do not believe that all climate change is anthropocentric, or that certain changes in the climate need not be for the worse?

The real problem in the United States is not Trump. It is the fact that many of the 75 million people who voted for him feel frustrated, exploited, silenced, manipulated and belittled by the elite that has seized control of the American media, the academy and the bureaucracy. What ‘the deplorables’—as Hillary Clinton calls them—see is the double standard, indeed the hypocrisy, of the traditional as well as the social media. They can compare accounts of the ‘largely peaceful’ 2020 riots (as CNN puts it) and the recent attack on the Capitol. Or they can recall the almost total suppression before the presidential election of any reports about the interesting content of Hunter Biden’s laptop computer. Or they can observe Twitter and Facebook freely transmitting venom from the Ayatollahs and Chinese communists, at the same time as these companies delete Trump’s account.

There is an additional consideration pointed out by Daniel Hannan. In the United States where the social media are mostly based, they are not held responsible for what their users say or write, under section 230 of the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996. The social media would hardly exist otherwise. But when Twitter, or any of the other internet giants, bans a person who served as the President of the United States for four years and who just received 75 million votes in an election—and cannot therefore in any sense be regarded as marginal—it is beginning to edit content, not only transmit it. Thus it is beginning to assume responsibility for content. Perhaps these private companies should for their own sake stay neutral, Hannan suggests. They should limit themselves to facilitating communication between their customers, perform the role of a servant rather than a master. They cannot have it both ways, deleting stuff that they do not like while claiming no responsibility for the content they transmit. The internet giants suddenly, in the course of a few years and without anyone really noticing, gained great power, and it is as true today as it was in Lord Acton’s time that power tends to corrupt and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.