Donald Trump’s exile and the power of social media platforms

Since ancient times, to be exiled was considered as definitive as capital punishment. Under Roman law, in fact voluntary exile was offered to a prisoner as an alternative to death; the word itself is derived from the Latin solum or soil, and to be exiled was to be taken away from one’s soil or land. Ramanujam, the Indian mathematical genius, agonized over going to Cambridge since crossing the oceans would exile him from his community. Napoleon Bonaparte and Bahadur Shah Zafar both died in exile and ignominy, with the latter pleading for a measly six feet of soil in his land to be buried.

President Donald J Trump would have perhaps realised the true meaning of the word in the dying days of his presidency, as he was subjected to the modern version of exile – de-platforming. Trump might have lived in the White House, but he existed on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, his true homes. It was the systematic use of these platforms that made him President, and it was these platforms which sustained him. Twitter was his megaphone, the tweets he sent equal to executive orders, and YouTube and Twitter was where his conspiracy groups flourished. In one fell swoop, all of them were taken away as Twitter banned him permanently and the others indefinitely. Since then if feels like the President has gone silent. He has tried to send out a few missives in a traditional fashion – speeches, statements, videos – but they have not been heard.

This radical move by the tech companies – to remove the President of their own country from their platforms – has had an expectedly vociferous response. Many of his have applauded the move. But many of his known critics have been horrified. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, various French ministers, and the Mexican President all criticized the move. On Twitter, the Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny wrote: “This precedent will be exploited by the enemies of freedom of speech around the world. Every time when they need to silence someone, they will say: ‘This is just common practice, even Trump got blocked on Twitter.’”

The ones which have been universally criticized for this action have been the platforms themselves – not as much for making the move, but either of doing it too late, or when it served their interests. As long as he was the President, who not only held political power but was responsible for billions in advertising revenue, they pussyfooted around his clearly offensive and inflammatory statements. The moment he became a lame-duck President, they made the move to take him off, no doubt provoked by the storming of the Capitol by the frenzied mob he used their platforms to instigate.

The move is riddled with contradictions. Their definition of the internet as open was good as long as it served them, the moment they became profit machines, their incentives were aligned elsewhere, with the ‘users becoming the product’. Their credibility of being neutral took a hit the moment they started the algorithmic manipulation of the users to maximize engagement and profits, and simultaneously stifle innovation. They extolled the freedom of speech and the US First Amendment and proclaimed themselves as pure ‘platforms’ with no editorial controls, and thus escaped responsibility and libel laws. In de-platforming the President, they have clearly acted as publishers.

On the other hand, the companies have every right to do what they did. “They can do whatever they want,” said Kara Swisher, the tech journalist. They’re private businesses. Very similar to a restaurant where someone comes in and rants and starts to threaten violence and things like that, they get kicked out.”

In my opinion, the real issue is not that the platforms are self-serving, but that they are monopolies. If you get thrown out of a couple of restaurants, there is none other you can go to. Bigger, and less noticed, than the move by the social platforms was the one by AWS, Shopify and Twilio to take out Parler, a Twitter alternative and a prominent gathering place of Trump supporters. If you are off AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, you cannot have a website; if Amazon and Shopify ban you, you cannot sell much; if Twitter, Facebook and YouTube de-platform you, you lose your voice. The real problem is that there are no alternatives.

Among the various Firsts that he has racked, Trump might be the first President to be impeached twice.  But as New York Times’ Kevin Roose writes “A successful impeachment would be an embarrassing end to Mr. Trump’s political career. But losing his huge online following — 88 million followers on Twitter, and 35 million on Facebook — would deprive him of cultural influence long into the future. It takes away the privilege he seems to covet most: the ability to commandeer the world’s attention with a push of a button.”

In this connected world, if your country deports you, you could live in many other places in the world, but could still be connected to your friends, culture and ethos. If the tech companies de-platform you, you might as well not exist, the true definition of exile.

(This article was published as a column in the Mint on Jan 21, 2021)

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