Facebook recently announced that Donald Trump will be banned from Facebook and Instagram for at least two years. At that time, the company will reevaluate the risk they have determined he poses to the general public on the grounds of instigating civil unrest. Twitter has also banned Donald Trump, but their suspension is indefinite.
Regardless of our individual political differences, it is essential to take a step back and consider Facebook’s action outside of the cloud of partisan politics. This article is not intended to defend any actions of January 6th; however, Donald Trump nor his allies have faced a judge and jury related to the events of January 6th. They have not been convicted of wrongdoing related to their speech, nor have any charges been filed. Their assumption of innocence remains intact related to their First Amendment rights—which do, of note, protect political speech. In this case, Facebook has acted as prosecutor, judge, and jury, and they have unilaterally punished Donald Trump. That is within their rights as a private company. Still, with few outlets for expression outside of a small handful of social media platforms, companies like Facebook have significant control over our freedom of speech.
Facebook has banned other right-wing personalities, including Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Left-wing activists have commented on being temporarily banned, too, including Akin Olla, who detailed his experience in The Guardian on January 29th.
Some of the content these individuals put out is false, politically charged, or conspiratorial, and this is not intended as a defense of the content. What is concerning, though, is the authoritarian nature that Facebook and other social media giants are exerting over speech.
Facebook also removes content that it believes to be false. While some may applaud this move, it is sometimes problematic. For instance, only recently has Facebook decided to stop removing content claiming that COVID-19 was man-made, as evidence has surfaced that gives that theory a real possibility. Facebook has controlled this narrative by disallowing content that may turn out to be true from being considered altogether on its platform.
What are the broader implications of the actions of Facebook and other social media giants? As the line for unacceptable rhetoric changes over time, will individuals who believe in something like traditional marriage be banned for “hateful” content, even if their objections are on the grounds of religious beliefs? Will Black Lives Matter participants be banned for viewpoints that could result in “civil unrest?”
Our country was founded on the principles of freedom of speech and assembly. The importance of our freedom of speech is much greater than each of our differing viewpoints. For hundreds of years, we as Americans have sorted through problems and come to new conclusions based on debate. The civil rights movement, for instance, was not popular at the time it arose, and there were marches and protests as Black folks sought equal rights. What if social media had been prevalent then? Would Facebook have prevented these individuals from organizing by blocking easy and commonly used communication methods from being used to reach like-minded individuals and create conversations? What would have been the broader societal implication of such action?
Before we applaud, laugh at, or otherwise dismiss the ban of Donald Trump or thought leaders on either side of the political spectrum, we should all consider the power social media giants have over our lives and the very content that we as a society discuss. By eliminating certain factions of the broader societal narrative, they have controlled the narrative itself. We have an obligation to protect our freedom of speech, including the speech with which we disagree. Today it’s Donald Trump, but who is next? Will it be you?