Discover more from Noah’s Newsletter
Should Twitter have been able to ban Trump?
I would argue that they should not have been able to ban him. In other words, there should have been regulations preventing the platform from banning Trump.
Twitter functions as a de facto monopoly. Due to network externalities, users derive more value from social media platforms as the number of other users increases, so the equilibrium is for nearly all users to be on a single platform. And indeed, nearly all users of “microblogging” platforms (Twitter, Gab and Parler) are on Twitter. Hence, although there are technically alternatives to Twitter, they are not really alternatives.
Twitter isn’t more valuable than Gab and Parler because its user interface is slightly better, or because its loading times are slightly shorter. It is more valuable because almost everyone is on Twitter.
In our present-day digital economy, Twitter is the public square. Hence it should be regulated like the public square. In other words, it should only be possible to ban people from Twitter under very specific circumstances. What circumstances?
One potential scenario is as follows. An individual with a large following commits incitement to violence on the platform. For example, he tweets, “Hey guys, let’s go over there and kill that guy.” The individual in question would presumably be arrested and then charged with incitement. He might also be charged with something like “irresponsible use of social media”. If so, one could imagine that he might receive a lifetime ban from Twitter. Crucially however, all these things would be decided by the country’s legal system, not by Twitter.
Another scenario in which one could imagine someone receiving a lifetime ban would be if he posted the instructions for how to make a biological weapon. Once again, the individual would be charged with something like “irresponsible use of social media”. Yet another would be if he continually harassed other users on the platform. Though that one is more debatable.
The point is that Twitter itself would not be able to decide whether to permanently ban people. Only a judge would. Unless someone had been formally charged with “irresponsible use of social media”, the platform would be obligated to allow him to create an account. (Of course, Twitter could not prevent people who had been charged with “irresponsible use of social media” from creating anonymous accounts, but those individuals couldn’t use their identity to gain more followers.)
What if someone was in imminent danger because a Twitter user had incited violence against them? Shouldn’t the platform act in real time by deleting the tweet? Once again, it would not be up to Twitter to decide whether to delete tweets. Rather, it would be up to the police. If they judged that the tweet in question constituted incitement, they could order Twitter to immediately delete it. And if a judge subsequently decided that the tweet did not constitute incitement, then it could be reinstated.
Twitter is particularly important in the political domain. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that any politician could win a national election without having a Twitter account. Hence banning people from Twitter is anti-Democratic. Note that the US already has the “equal-time rule”, which stipulates that TV and radio stations must give equal time to all candidates who request it.
But didn’t Trump’s tweets the other day actually constitute incitement to violence? This seems to me to be highly contentious. But even if they did, my point is that it should not be for Twitter to decide.
Please note that this article is not meant as a defence of Donald Trump. Rather, it is about ensuring that the public square is regulated in a consistent way by accountable institutions, rather than in arbitrary way by increasingly ideological corporations. What I have said is only a rough sketch of the kind of approach that might work.
Image: Twitter logo
Thanks for reading. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with your friends. And please consider subscribing if you haven’t done so already.