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The Caesars of the Information Age

Donald Trump has been unbanned, but Silicon Valley censorship is still a menace to humanity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Free Speech Politics Science & Tech UK USA World

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I thought I would feel some relief when the social-media giants came to their senses and let Donald Trump back on their platforms. Yet now that it’s happened, now that Meta has decreed that Trump has served his time in the virtual wilderness and may once again post on Facebook and Instagram, I just feel unnerved. Unnerved by the extraordinary power these people wield over who may and who may not engage with the billions of souls who gather online. Unnerved by their supranational authority to grant or rescind a licence to speak in the global town square. Unnerved by the historically unprecedented dominion this small clique of the woke rich enjoys over the liberty to utter.

The unbanning of Trump feels less like a victory for freedom of speech than a triumph of Silicon Valley Caesarism. It sends the message that it is for these Emperors of the Information Age to decide who may enter the modern arena of discussion, who may have to be expelled, how long they should be expelled for, and under what conditions they may be permitted to return once their punishment is complete.

Indeed, even though Meta’s statement on readmitting Trump to Facebook and Instagram is justified in the language of freedom of speech – ‘The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying’, it says, with staggering gall, given it spent the past two years preventing the public from hearing what Trump was saying – it also says it will keep a tight leash on Trump. If he violates any of Meta’s protocols, he’ll be suspended again, they warn, for anywhere between one month and two years. So the politician may speak to the people, so long as he says nothing to offend the arrogant hip capitalists who control 21st-century public discussion. Their message is crystal clear: ‘We’re still in control, and we always will be.’

Trump was banished from social media in January 2021. Following the Capitol Hill riot of 6 January, virtually all of Silicon Valley decreed that he should be unpersoned, blacklisted, silenced. He was kicked off Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Spotify and Twitch. YouTube, Reddit and TikTok brought in stiff restrictions on the expression of pro-Trump sentiment. Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their stores, so that the virtual masses wouldn’t be able to access the one platform that was still allowing Trump to speak.

It was the most comprehensive act of censorship of modern times. In fact, it was without precedent in the history of human communications. No other power in history – not the Vatican, not the Inquisition, not the Star Chamber – has ever enacted such a sweeping and global act of silencing. And let us not forget that Trump was the sitting US president when this happened. It was a truly egregious assault on the democratic rights of the American people, and on all internet users’ right to free thought and independent judgement.

Now, far from backtracking on their intolerant corporate onslaught on the free flow of ideas and information, far from expressing shame for their tyranny in 2021, our online overlords are reasserting their right to shut down those who displease them. In his statement on the release of Trump from the limbo of censure, Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, makes it clear that any public figure who breaks Meta’s rules will be muzzled. In fact, Meta has drafted a whole new protocol for dealing with ‘public figures during civil unrest’. It threatens that ‘state- and national-level government officials’ and ‘political candidates for those offices’ will be expelled from its platforms if they post questionable content during times of unrest, especially if they ‘incite’ or ‘celebrate’ violent events. Shorter version: watch your words, elected officials, or us unelected billionaires will switch off your oxygen of publicity.

Consider how arbitrary this new protocol could prove to be. There is huge civil unrest in Iran right now, as women and men rise up against the misogynistic despotism of the theocratic regime there. Might the brave ‘government official’ that dares to ‘celebrate’ this civil unrest – whether that’s an Iranian official or an American one – find him or herself being gagged at the behest of Emperor Clegg? Or what if a member of The Squad says something positive about the next Palestinian Intifada? Or a Democrat congressperson makes sympathetic noises if there’s another Black Lives Matter riot, perhaps calling such unrest ‘understandable’? Is that celebration? Will online exile await these speechcriminals, too? And this is leaving aside the small matter that the Californian oligarchy’s claim that Trump ‘incited’ or ‘celebrated’ the violence at the Capitol were never very convincing. Under their new regime of civil-unrest censorship, the Silicon Valley Caesars will have free rein to interpret politicians’ words as they see fit, and thus to punish politicians as they see fit.

What we’re likely to end up with is an entirely partisan empire of censorship. I guarantee you that something like Kamala Harris’s tweet in 2020 encouraging people to donate to a bail fund for BLM protesters in Minnesota – some of whom were protesting violently – will not be judged a ‘celebration’ of civil unrest and thus a bannable offence, whereas if Trump uses the phrase ‘great American patriots’ at the same time as some right-wing oafs are smashing things up, he’ll be instantly cast out of polite internet society once again.

Indeed, we can already see the political bias that courses through the veins of Meta’s new, post-Trump system of speech control. In his edict on Trump, Clegg says that any politician who posts ‘content that delegitimises an upcoming election’ runs the risk of being restricted and even banned. Will this include Hillary Clinton, Mr Clegg? After all, in October last year she said that Republican ‘extremists’ have a plan to ‘literally steal the next presidential election’. That’s delegitimisation of an upcoming election, no? That’s an influential official casting aspersions on the validity of a future ballot, right? Are you going to ban her, Nick? Of course you aren’t. She’s one of your people.

Caesars never have to explain themselves. Arbitrariness is their prerogative. Their whims rule. Nothing better captures the unaccountable, undemocratic nature of California’s global system of political censorship than the figure of Nick Clegg. This is the failed British politician turned controller of global public chatter. People outside the UK might not be aware of just how comprehensively the British people rejected Clegg. Under his leadership, the Liberal Democrats went from having 57 seats in the House of Commons in 2010 to just eight in 2015. He himself lost his seat in 2017 to a Labour politician who’s currently in court on suspicion of faking expense claims so that he could buy cocaine. And yet Clegg now gets to dictate to the 50million Brits who use Facebook, and the 30million who use Instagram, which politicians they are permitted to hear from and engage with.

We kick him and his party out of office, and yet his control over our lives, our minds and our conversations grows and grows. He circumvents the British state, and states around the world, and reaches right into our computers and gadgets to redact the comments of one of the best-known politicians of our age. This is the new absolutism. The Caesarism of Clegg runs counter to every principle of democracy and liberty.

Years ago, we imagined that the internet would shatter the age of the gatekeeper. No longer would local censors or even editors be the guardians of what we could see and read and hear and say. But the sad reality is that new gatekeepers have emerged, and they’re more extreme and ruthless than the old. From Silicon Valley’s coordinated silencing of the elected president of the United States, to pre-Musk Twitter’s FBI-inspired blacklisting of right-wing hotheads and Covid wrongthinkers, to Facebook’s clampdown on Trump, vaccine scepticism and ‘climate misinformation’, the control of ideas has rarely been as intense as it is right now. That these Caesars of California can restrict the reading and viewing material of billions of human beings across the Earth is simply intolerable. How have we allowed this to happen?

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics Science & Tech UK USA World

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