"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
I, for one, am comforted by the silence. I am relieved that the stream of misinformation, disinformation and general mean-spirited lunacy has been plugged. For years, former President Donald Trump used social media platforms to connect with tens of millions of followers who appreciated his raw commentary. And now he can’t.
Now his vitriol is reserved for public appearances. The drumbeat of news reporting his insulting, or inaccurate, or dangerous posts has been silenced by “oversight boards” and social media company officers. This raises the question of how much power over our rights and freedoms we should relinquish to oversight boards.
Despite the First Amendment to the Constitution, quoted above, and the child’s chant dating back to the 1800s, Trump has been banned from most popular social media, including Facebook, where he had 35 million followers; Twitter, 88 million; Instagram, 24 million; Snapchat 1.5 million; YouTube, 2.8 million, and Twitch, 1.5 million. He has no account on TikTok, or chances are that he’d be banned from that, too.
I am relieved, and yet uneasy, about this silencing of anyone’s public voice, no matter how antithetical to commonly held values and views. The idea that someone would be banned from posting his or her ideas runs counter to our nation’s ideals. However, and it is a big however, the former president’s irresponsible posts became as dangerous as yelling “Fire!” in a theater, and likely led to the violence of Jan. 6.
Still, tens of millions of people believe the Trump posts and read his false and inflammatory statements as gospel. If he talked crazy and was marginalized by an American public that saw through him, the narrative would be different. The dilemma is that so many citizens believe what he has to say, even that the 2020 election was stolen from him, a provably false assertion. The danger of letting him back on social media is the prospect of another Jan. 6 insurrection or worse if he starts priming the pump again with coded support for violence against our government.
Private companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have the right to ban people from their sites, because while the First Amendment states that while Congress may not limit free speech, it does not prevent private companies from setting their own standards and rules for participation. But having the right to ban someone from social media, especially a former president, is serious business. How do we know who the deciders of free speech will be on social media boards of the future? We are traversing new ground, with no precedents to follow.
“The First Amendment only restrains government; it does not restrain a private company,” says Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. “In fact, those companies have their own First Amendment right to determine, as would a newspaper, for example, what will appear on their sites.”
Let’s look back at Trump’s social media history, including his leadership by tweet. It is a four-year-plus river of toxic speech, at times personally insulting to individuals, at times promoting Trump’s private businesses and interests, at times encouraging his followers to act on his behalf.
According to David Byler in The Washington Post, the worst Trump tweet, among thousands, was his October 2020 post telling Americans they shouldn’t be afraid of the coronavirus. This wasn’t just false, Byler said, it became a public health catastrophe. At that point, Trump was just recovering from his own Covid infection, and some 200,000 Americans had died. We were in the throes of the worst pandemic in 100 years.
In the case of social media and Trump, I’m relieved that the companies took away his microphone. But the better scenario would be to let him spew, shake out the cobwebs in his head and let the spiders fly. Then trust the good judgment of the American public to sort the truth from the lies.
Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at email@example.com.