Can right-wing populist sentiment be banished from American life by the brute force of social-media censorship? We’re about to find out. After Wednesday’s mob invasion of the Capitol that disrupted the counting of electoral votes, big tech firms have moved, aggressively and in unison, against Donald Trump and his supporters. The companies say they want to marginalize the violent fringe, but their censorship will grow it instead.
On Thursday and Friday came the Facebook and Twitter bans of Mr. Trump. Given the extraordinary circumstances, some commentators who normally oppose web censorship were untroubled.
An exception who deserves to be listened to is Alexei Navalny, the Russian democracy advocate and scourge of Vladimir Putin who was poisoned last year. He pointed out that, unlike the open election process that ousted Mr. Trump, social-media decisions to de-platform elected officials are unaccountable and arbitrary. “Don’t tell me he was banned for violating Twitter rules. I get death threats here every day for many years, and Twitter doesn’t ban anyone,” Mr. Navalny tweeted.
He added that while Twitter is a private company, “we have seen many examples in Russian and China of such private companies becoming the state’s best friends and enablers when it comes to censorship.”
Then the tech giants moved against Parler, Twitter’s free-speech competitor that is a haven for Trump supporters as well as more extreme figures. Google and Apple indefinitely booted Parler from their app stores over the weekend, crippling its viability on mobile phones. Then Amazon went for the kill, announcing that on Sunday it would withdraw its cloud service that Parler relies on to store data.
Parler’s more lax content moderation resembles the approach taken by social-media companies in the early and mid-2010s, before Silicon Valley soured on its earlier theories about an open internet promoting democracy. The Journal reported Saturday that “in the past few days, Parler doubled its team of volunteer moderators—called ‘jurors’—to more than a thousand,” and proposed further enforcement steps. But Parler is now a political target, and it won’t be the last.
Sociologists have documented how America’s political tribes increasingly shop at different stores, live in different places and have different tastes. That cultural gap contributed to Donald Trump’s rise, and political segregation of the internet will widen it.
Conservatives of all stripes watched as Twitter and Facebook took extraordinary measures to black out legitimate reporting on Hunter Biden in the run-up to the election. Now an informal confederation of web gatekeepers is methodically destroying a competitor that was created to accommodate their views.
Dissenting opinion won’t vanish because tech CEOs ban it. The views will go underground, perhaps become radicalized in frustration, and eventually burst into the open in the streets. Perceived political abuses by tech firms are becoming a major engine of populism in the 21st century, and the companies’ moves on Parler will supply an infusion of fuel.
All the more so because Silicon Valley is truckling to the progressives who will soon dominate Washington. Democrats are applauding the new tech blacklists, and for months they have pounded Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with threats if he doesn’t censor political content they don’t like. The big tech firms may be private, but their censorship at the behest of the powerful in government raises moral and legal issues.
Joe Biden said Friday that America needs a “principled and strong” opposition party. Whatever the GOP’s future, and despite widespread revulsion at the President’s actions last week, tens of millions of his supporters will be the basis for that opposition party. New and aggressive uses of corporate, politically endorsed power to silence larger swathes of the right will be destructive in a way that all Americans may live to regret.
—The Wall Street Journal