Big tech’s conservative purge will lead to stricter regulations.
Earlier this month, Twitter banned the personal account of Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) and at the same time limited the official White House account, leaving the President of the United States unable to directly communicate with the nation and its voters on the platform.
For many conservatives, the move to ban Trump from Twitter after the Capitol riots on January 7, was an assault on freedom of speech and since then, many leaders around the world have also condemned how Twitter handled the situation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was critical of Twitter for blocking President Donald Trump’s account, considering the ban a threat to free speech. The European commissioner Thierry Breton saw Twitter’s decision as a total break from the past, calling it “the 9/11 moment of social media” in an op-ed published by Politico. Acting Australian Prime Minister Michael McCormack said blocking Trump amounts to censorship. And the French Junior Minister for European Union Affairs Clement Beaune said to Bloomberg that “This should be decided by citizens, not by a CEO.”
Other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube followed Twitter’s lead and now Trump is banned from virtually every major platform out there, mostly indefinitely. Those who approve of Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump and the purge of thousands of conservative accounts on the platform, like to invoke the mantra that if conservatives think they have been “shut down”, they should also find comfort in the fact that the free market will provide an alternative and competition. However, it’s not that simple.
Social media platforms enjoy a great privilege that not many other companies or sectors do. They make their own rules under their Terms of Service and have total control of their platforms. This extreme power makes it hard for users and companies who feel that they have been unfairly treated to have a diligent due process review of their claims. With nowhere to go to have their voices heard, one last line of defence still stands and stronger than ever: the market.
After the ban of Donald Trump’s accounts, which had over 80 million followers on Twitter, some consumers started to ditch the social media platforms and services that they believe were censoring and targeting conservative speech. Many well known political accounts, such as James Woods reportedly lost over 7 thousand followers in 48 hours and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, lost 45,000 followers. Even more centrist political accounts as Dave Rubin reported a drop of over 35 thousand followers on Twitter. Republican lawmakers also lost thousands of followers. According to USA Today, about 42% of the accounts – 213 – had fewer followers on Jan. 13 than they did on Jan. 6. The vast majority of those accounts –200 – belonged to Republicans. As a result, the next week, Twitter stocks plummeted more than 10%. Facebook fell 4% to $256.84, Alphabet stock was down 2.2% to $1,766.72, and Amazon stock dropped 2.2%, to $3,114.21.
The market reacted this way because large tech companies are alienating users by directly excluding accounts and because people are simply leaving the platforms all together for alternatives such as Gab and Rumble. Parler was a popular alternative for Twitter but was wiped off the internet last week after both Apple and Google remove the app from their stores and Amazon decided not to host the website on their AWS servers.
Most of today’s social media platforms are free because they collect data about their users every day, from location to website searches, even fingerprinting all your devices. Those pieces of information are sold to advertisers who cater to your interests. As we have written, this practice is both innovative and helps support the social media networks we use. However, the business model is not sustainable if tech companies are not able to gather updated information about their users, or worse, if the consumers the advertisers are looking to reach are not on their platforms anymore.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose company’s share plumed the most this week, seems to have realized this the hard way. His strategy may have backlashed as now, millions of conservative consumers are out on the internet, without a home, and desperately looking for a new place to be heard and speak freely. He acknowledged last week that banning Trump from Twitter “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”
Tech companies should be aware that even though they enjoy a privileged position now, this might not last for long. The European Commission, for example, has introduced two proposals that would place more restraints on digital giants. The first, is the Digital Markets Act, the centerpiece of Europe’s digital plans aimed at boosting online competition in a world dominated by Silicon Valley. The second is the Digital Services Act aimed to limit the spread of illegal content and goods online, making online platforms responsible for the spread of such content. Other countries might also try to regulate digital services in a way that would be prejudicial to tech companies and most importantly, to consumer choice. Poland, for instance, plans to make censoring of social media accounts illegal: “algorithms or the owners of corporate giants should not decide which views are right and which are not,” wrote the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki on Facebook last week.
For now, a free market is still the most powerful way in which consumers can have a voice and make their choices clear. This might change in the future, but it’s comforting to know that even when governments fail, consumers and private companies can count on the power of supply and demand. And if you ask me, I wouldn’t change it for anything else.
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Originally published here.