A piece by Hugo Rifkind in today’s Times:
Running your own social media platform raises all sorts of free speech questions, as the health secretary knows
Life moves pretty fast, as Ferris Bueller once taught us, so you may have forgotten that Matt Hancock once famously launched his own app. Not the Covid app. The Matt Hancock app. This was back in 2018, and he was culture secretary. Basically it was a social media platform. Catering to all your Matt Hancock-related needs.
It didn’t go entirely well. Almost immediately, the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch called it “a fascinating comedy of errors” due to its demands for access to various bits of your smartphone. Worse, the messageboard was immediately flooded with pranksters and trolls, quite overwhelming any attempt to moderate.
Long ago, The Onion ran a spoof about forgotten social media platforms under the headline “Internet Archaeologists Find Ruins of Friendster Civilisation”. Logging back into my Matt Hancock after three years felt a bit like that. Today, mad dogs and lunatics scavenge in the rubble. The most recent post seemed to be from a man called Dr Chong, who had posted a picture of Sonic the Hedgehog under the caption “You’ve Got A Really Cute Set Of Balls”.
Anyway, now Donald Trump is following Hancock’s lead. On Sunday, his current spokesman Jason Miller declared that the former president would soon be launching his own social media platform, too. Hancock was not mentioned, which I felt was cruel. At risk of committing the faux pas of taking the Trump camp both seriously and literally, this could be big news.
Some recap is probably necessary. Up until the start of this year, as you have probably not been blessed with forgetting, social media and Twitter in particular was Trump’s battleground of choice. A friend of mine once likened it to having a giant, malign baby; you’d wake in the morning with a sense of dread about whatever terrible thing he’d done in the cot while you slept.
There’s no need for hyperbole about this, because the reality was bad enough. In 2018, of an idle evening, he threatened North Korea with nuclear war. In 2020, he threatened to bomb cultural sites in Iran. There were insults, there were tweets that moved stock markets, there were attacks on allies. There was an attempt to buy Greenland, which wasn’t offensive as such, but I just like mentioning it. Towards the end, there were untrue claims about voter fraud, to which Twitter started attaching disclaimers. And then, actually at the end, after that mob stormed the Capitol, the platform booted him off altogether. Pretty soon, Youtube and Facebook followed suit.
Depending on your view, these bans were either a grotesque leftist corporate infringement of free speech, or acts of long-overdue civic responsibility. Personally I cleave towards the latter view, not least because I think anybody who puts the words “leftist” and “corporate” next to each other is definitely using one of them a bit wrongly.
In the end, either way, it left Planet Trump with a genuine communications problem. How, now, to address the world? Almost simultaneously, a site called Parler — a sort of no-holds-barred Twitter alternative blamed by some for stirring up the Capitol mob — was knocked offline by Amazon, which had provided hosting, so that was out, too. There was also Gab, which is pretty similar, and a small handful of others, but Trump seemed strangely unkeen.
According to CNN, Jared Kushner had a lot to do with this, with the president’s haunted consigliere son-in-law presumably feeling that too overt an association between Trumpism and any of these sites would be reputationally catastrophic. I suppose he could have tried the Matt Hancock app. Maybe he didn’t know about it.
Today, Parler is back online. Earlier this year, Buzzfeed reported that the site had actually offered Trump a 40 per cent stake if he’d post, henceforth, exclusively to them. Yet this doesn’t seem to be happening. Perhaps it all just feels a bit low rent, on account of everybody else who is there. By definition, by logic, by USP, the denizens of fringe social media sites are the people kicked off the main ones. Very occasionally, I know, they really have got a raw deal. More often they’re trolls, nuts, serial abusers, genuine Nazis, pornographers, Bitcoin scammers and so on. I’m reminded of the anonymous White House source quoted in the US media about Trump’s eventual mortification about the Capitol mob. “He doesn’t like low-class things,” they said.
What Trump wants, presumably, is to be able to say whatever he likes, but in an environment which also doesn’t let too many other people do the same thing, for fear of lowering the tone. This is not a new conundrum. It is the exact dilemma faced by all social media companies, including the ones that banned him.
I understand why some worry about social media companies unilaterally banning people. It represents unfettered and unaccountable power, and it leads to censoriousness, blacklisting, emotional fragility and political fragmentation. Pointing all of that out is very easy.
Much harder, though, is figuring out an alternative. I don’t think there is one. Should the state decide, on a case by case basis, what speech is to be banned or allowed? I don’t think so. Until recently, I suppose many would have felt that the answer was for the state to do the opposite and ban banning altogether. That way, though, lies a chaos so unappealing that even Donald Trump would be embarrassed to be a part of it.
So what then? Within the broadest guidelines of law, I reckon, you simply have to let these sites police themselves. Let them be governed, first and foremost, by fear of the political condemnation and reputational damage if they pay no heed to who uses their platforms, and for what. That’s what they all did with Trump, belatedly, much to his fury. Yet one day soon, I bet, it will be what Trump does, too. He’ll have to. Life moves pretty fast.
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