End of internet anarchy
Fallout from the Capitol invasion shows that pacification of social media is well underway, says Paul Demarty
By happy coincidence, I chose the beginning of last week to start using Twitter again.
Previously in these pages I have described the modern internet as a buyer’s market for fellow feeling and, as the events of last Wednesday, January 6, unfolded, I found myself absorbed into a stream of posters who, like me, had to admit that we found the whole thing very, very funny. Last breached by a 4,000-strong corps of British soldiers in 1814, the Capitol was occupied by a few-hundred-strong rabble of neo-Nazis, Zionists, stoners, Iranian monarchists, conspiracy-addled petty bourgeois and who knows who else - some lightly armed and apparently led by a shirtless man in a comedy Viking hat.
Of course, absurd events can in the end have serious consequences, which is very likely to be the case with the Capitol invasion, such as it was. John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry in 1859 was militarily insane, an act of ‘revolutionary suicide’, but nonetheless occupies a crucial symbolic role in the outbreak of the American Civil War; however farcical the ‘Make America Great Again’ insurrection was as a coup attempt, it is likely to prove an inflection point in many stories, none of which look at present like they will have happy endings. One of these is the history of social media, and more broadly the period of anarchic free expression online, which may be coming to an end.
There are two classes of threat to freedom of speech - the first and better known is, of course, state censorship and control; the second - partially occluded by liberal ideology - is the collective power of capital to suppress ideas short of state bans. It is the latter kind of threat that has been most obviously on display in the events of the last week. We need only recount the final days of the most notorious Twitter account in the platform’s dubious history - @realDonaldTrump.
Trump’s account has been ‘on notice’ for months now. As the presidential electoral count edged towards a clear victory for Joe Biden, Trump - as widely expected - denounced the whole affair as a fraud. Twitter’s response was to suppress his posts on a case-by-case basis, either attaching a message baldly stating that the tweet was false, or even hiding it completely behind such a warning, with the user having to click through to read the text. Twitter declared that, once he was no longer president, Trump would not be covered by its special rules for major public figures, and hopes flowered among the liberal Twitterati that the exit of Trump from the White House would be followed by the banning of @realDonaldTrump from the social networks.
It turns out we did not have to wait quite that long. After Trump started the Capitol riot, the great and the good demanded he call off the mob; this he chose to do in a video on Twitter that, while pleading with the crowd to disperse, showered compliments and love on them. Twitter decided that this was endorsement of political violence, and suspended his account for 12 hours. The next morning, Trump issued a firmer denunciation of the Capitol mayhem; but by the end of the day he had reverted to denouncing the election result. When he gave notice to his followers that he would not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration - yet another of these shop-worn signs of goodwill upon which the American constitution apparently rests - Twitter decided that this amounted to incitement, and kicked him off for good. Facebook soon followed suit.
Since Trump is utterly dependent on apparently direct contact with his legions of followers (and, for that matter, enemies), this presented a certain problem. He needed somewhere else to go. Reports began to emerge, from people like Fox News ghoul Sean Hannity, that he was moving over to Parler - one of many far-right-friendly social media sites to have appeared in the last few years. It floundered primarily because its user base was self-selecting; there is no way to ‘own the libs’ if there are no libs to own. Last June, Parler CEO John Matze publicly offered a $10,000 bounty to any liberal with more than 50,000 Twitter followers to start using his platform; but he had no success, not even after doubling the incentive. (The money was not his, but Rebekah Mercer’s: Parler is a product of the same rightwing dark money that gave us Cambridge Analytica).
It is not clear whether it was Trump’s intent, but it is certainly the case that far-right users were stampeding over from Twitter. Parler topped the iOS app store chart on January 8. Shortly after, under a great deal of pressure, Apple and Google both suspended Parler from their app stores, meaning that users could only access the site in a web browser. Even that was not to last: Amazon Web Services terminated Parler’s account over the weekend, taking the whole thing offline; but not before another service provider, Twilio, did the same, with the apparent effect of allowing activist hackers an opportunity to scrape all the content from the site, including personal data and posts which had been deleted.
Liberals are very happy to see all this. Their defence has two prongs: first of all, they say, there is a difference between merely promoting a political position and invading public buildings to interfere with the democratic process; secondly, the right to freedom of speech is not the right of freedom of speech on Twitter, which is perfectly within its rights to not amplify your voice if it so desires. The first idea is, at least, problematic. Here are the tweets that led to Trump’s permanent ban, in full:
The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!
To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.
On the face of it, these texts are noticeable for the total absence of any calls for violence - indeed even for any mention of the Capitol mob. This is Donald on his best behaviour. Of course, Trump does provoke political action, very much including violent action, by speaking out at all on his favoured themes in the current context. If that is the problem, then the conclusion is merely that free speech should not be generally permitted, since some political views and speakers are inherently generative of violence and we need protection from them.
Combined with the second argument, things become even worse. For here, our liberals accept that it is perfectly acceptable for giant media corporations to have the power they do to blacklist oppositional voices. It is enough for Twitter to decide “that the two Tweets above are likely to inspire others to replicate the violent acts that took place on January 6”.1 This is obviously unacceptable from a communist or otherwise revolutionary perspective, but in truth even many liberals are likely to live to regret this.
An illustration: there has been much commentary arguing that a Black Lives Matter protest would have been treated much more roughly on the Capitol steps than the Trump supporters were. But the truth is that the event would also have been treated differently by liberal commentators, at least more radical ones. It is inconceivable that, had BLM protestors interrupted some House debate on (say) a bill that massively increased appropriations for police, right-on Twitterati would be shrieking for new laws against ‘domestic terrorism’ to protect us from a BLM coup. Of course, rightwing Twitterati would make such calls, and would demand Twitter enforce its policies fairly; and before long it would be ‘goodnight Vienna’ for any radicals who spoke out in support of the action.
In return for taking this risk, we get - what, exactly? Kicking the far right off Twitter and Facebook, and deep-sixing any potential replacements, serves only to put them out of sight and out of mind. It is as if progressive Americans imagine that cutting such reprobates out of their feeds is equivalent to cutting their reactionary ideas out of their brains. Must we remind the world that coups and mob violence predate Twitter by some distance?
These questions are made more urgent because, to a greater extent than they have been for a long time, the power of social media titans is up for political discussion in the US. The House Judiciary Committee has already set out a long argument that Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple are behaving monopolistically and should be subject to anti-trust action.2
Meanwhile, the free speech question is being fought out on the basis of section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which effectively absolves all hosts of user-generated content - from the tiniest listserv up to Facebook itself - from legal liability for the content so uploaded. Section 230 is under attack from centrist Democrats and right-wing Republicans: the former because it eases the spread of ‘hate speech’, the latter because it aids the supposed censorship of conservative politics by preventing legal challenges to moderation decisions.
An attempt at reform of last year, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (‘Earn It’) Act, also included demands for government ‘backdoors’ into messaging services and the like. This points to another unsettling development: having invented the internet way back when and more or less lost control for a while, the national security state is tightening its grip. And, while we have only been discussing American politics so far, the international dimension of this is also interesting.
The major tech companies are already happy to do business very differently elsewhere. Extensive censorship already takes place in many countries, including restrictions on strong encryption. Most dramatically there is the ‘Great Firewall’ of China; predicted to turn out a Canutian flop by Bill Clinton more than 20 years ago, it has not only survived, but in fact resulted in a flourishing community of Chinese internet giants, from Alibaba to Bytedance, which runs the video platform TikTok (the latter, of course, has been successfully exported to western youth culture).3 The deplatforming of Trump and Parler, however, demonstrates that the US regime is the centre of it all. Parler is destroyed worldwide because of its role in American politics. It is little surprise that protests against the actions of the big tech companies have come from Angela Merkel, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and other public figures outside the USA: it is their public spheres that are at risk, as well as those of the United States.
Between the increasing authoritarianism of capitalist state regimes, on the one hand, and the bloated tech giants and the small-C conservative tendencies of their executives, on the other, we have reached this point: Trumpites must be purged from Twitter, and friendlier alternatives ground into brick-dust. The likely result of the present confrontation of the state and the tech giants is not a wave of monopoly-smashing on the model of the post-war era, but a new concordat, in which state and corporations alike take a far more active role in setting limits on acceptable speech, the social media giants doing their national duty in return for basically being left to gorge themselves on planet-spanning captive markets.
The confusion of ‘progressives’ in general on this matter reaches into the left. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) - supposedly a socialist of some sort, but rapidly getting normalised into the Democratic mainstream - congratulated Google and Apple for banning Parler; the central organs of the Democratic Socialists of America have so far maintained silence on the matter, and the group clearly lacks any kind of coherent policy in relation to freedom of speech. AOC fans will take her line; more generally, DSA types and the wider activist left tack towards the ‘Democrat’ critique of the social media giants (they connive at the promotion of racist conspiracy theories) than the ‘Republican’ (they exercise too great an influence on what voices are allowed in the public square). However hypocritical Republican lawmakers are to take that line, it is the more pertinent one for the left.
Exactly why that is the case needs a little more unpacking. It is undeniable that the far right has made enormous progress in American political culture in this period, especially since the election of Barack Obama. That is the same time period that social media reached more or less universal popularity. Correlation is not causation, and the political and economic tumult of those years bears primary responsibility for the collapse of American political culture more recently; but the ability to achieve wide media reach beyond the traditional media gatekeepers has helped the promoters of the fruitier conspiracy theories to thrive. It was those sorts of people who predominated in the Capitol riot - most notoriously in the form of QAnon supporters (who include both the woman shot dead by police and the shirtless fellow we mentioned earlier).
The correlation is close enough, certainly, to support a minor punditry-industrial complex, whereby the specific features of online life are blamed for the appalling political-cultural ills that gave us a Trump presidency, and were on full display on January 6. The argument goes like this: social media, as we said, is a buyer’s market for fellow feeling. In the old media landscape, one is confronted with a series of news sources whose biases are to a considerable extent well-known. We know (with American examples) that Fox News is conservative, the New York Times moderate-conservative and liberal-centrist according to the prevailing winds, and so on.
Social media, however, firehose us with endless more or less viral content, whose origins are often non-transparent. Small media outlets may present themselves as local papers, but in fact be astroturfed ‘dark money’ operations … or foreign subversion. Targeted advertising, meanwhile, means that (for example) a Democratic strategist cannot even just watch Fox News to get a handle on what Republican voters are seeing; she may never see the viral fake-news posts that dominate people’s feeds. The result is that Fox News is ‘reinterpreted’ at the Republican base as part of a wholly ‘conservative’ (and in reality ultra-reactionary) media ecosystem, rather than a conservative media outlet among other, politically different ones; the liberal media, which ends up including the former conservative mainstream, is reinterpreted correspondingly as a source of lies and treason.
There is a significant silence of this account, which is that it should cut both ways - that is, the liberal media should be outmanoeuvred by insane varieties of radical leftism. For all the rightwing jeremiads about ‘cultural Marxism’, this has not happened, and whatever the Bernie Sanders phenomenon tells us about the changing mores of the Democratic base, the clear overall picture of politics as a whole is of an endless and ominous ratchet to the right, rather than merely out from the centre.
The solution to this riddle lies not in changes to the media in the light of modern information technology, but in politics. The USA lacks any recent history of mass-membership political party organisation of the type common in Europe and elsewhere. It maintains classically bourgeois political structures that attach state and private bureaucracies to local clubs, fraternities and similar. (In Europe, too, parties have rotted away so as to become more ‘American’.)
The practical result is that high politics appears to stand above the rest of society, with masses denied any ongoing political control over their representatives, as might be expected in even the most defective political party proper. On the left - broadly defined - the picture is of masses of activists beavering away at the cruelty of modern society, usually on a single-issue basis, and then periodically titillated with the depravity of the Republican candidates, so as to ensure a vote for the ‘lesser evil’ candidate at the appropriate time. On the right, the picture is similar to an extent (albeit with different causes célèbres), but often consists of near total atomisation, such that individuals have no collective political life beyond their ‘direct’ identification with Bonaparte figures. Politics tends towards a contest between such Bonapartes, and hysterical liberal warnings about the same, in both cases suppressing meaningful politics.
Even ‘activism’ is thereby turned into a kind of spectator sport - a game, in the case of Trump’s Antifa nemeses, of chasing rightwing celebrities around to no obvious purpose, beyond putting on display the fact that there exist people opposed to them. Those of us who lack the energy can settle into our Twitter peanut galleries.
One of the cultural effects of social media, Twitter especially, has been to turn world affairs into a sort of endless episode of the US TV series, Mystery science theater 3000 - a terrible movie mocked from the cheap seats, with various factions taking turns in silhouette before the screen. Whenever some big scandal erupts, we take our positions either of totally mirthless solemnity, or back-seat heckling. Yet social media can only do this because the countervailing tendencies are too weak to prevent it. Reality itself offers no clear division between the ridiculous and the very serious. Democracy dies in a Viking hat.
Getting out of this rut means true party organisation; and only the working class needs party organisation to press its demands at all. It should be clear now why siding with liberal Democrats against social media hate speech is grasping the wrong horn. For the result is merely to hand more power to the state bureaucracy, reduce activism even more to spectacle, and - as the dialectic of capitalist decline unfolds - call forth more reaction, racism and irrationality (it is also to hand the future representatives of said reaction - and, for that matter, the sort of ultra-imperialist ghouls that Joe Biden is to surround himself with in government - more powers to suppress popular movements of any strength).
Liberals - even ‘radical’ liberals and social democrats - so easily turn themselves into a mob baying for retribution and punitive measures against their enemies, because their belief in free speech is based on a falsehood. That falsehood is that the free exchange of ideas in itself has a sort of Darwinian logic, that will in the end tend toward consensus, and then the peaceful replacement of one consensus with another as a result of changing circumstances. This belief presupposes a kind of dualism: a free world of ideas that exists apart from the natural and historical constitution of the people who hold those ideas.
What is thereby made invisible is class - the fact that people’s interests are irreconcilable, so long as society is divided into classes. Thus, so long as capitalism persists, the underlying tendency is away from consensus. The toxic culture of social media is one possible outworking; another, of course, is revolutionary politics. This is why we must denounce corporate and state-bureaucratic attacks on the free speech of the right: not for the sake of educating the right, but of organising ourselves. It is also, needless to say, why a mass party-movement would develop a full spectrum of media - including social media vastly different to the behaviourist hellscapes of Facebook and Twitter (and naturally more resistant to adversarial action on the part of the state and internet giants than Parler). The victory of the working class is the only path out of the psychotic polarisation of which @realDonaldTrump was totemic, towards a society where ideological competition is agonistic rather than antagonistic.
There is, alas, little sign that the significance of all this is being grasped. As I commenced writing this article, those Twitter liberals not shopping alt-right weirdos to the FBI were accusing Vogue of racism for dressing Kamala Harris in sneakers for a cover photo. And the band played on …
In an illustration of the interventionism of the Chinese state here, Alibaba is currently mired in bruising anti-trust litigation, with rumours circulating that it may be nationalised. See ibtimes.sg/china-ccp-nationalize-jack-mas-alibaba-ant-group-54444.↩︎