Living these past months in Turkey, I became quite conscious of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to shut down Twitter and other Internet platforms, as well as to block access to Wikipedia. This censorship was taken in reaction to insulting and critical material about the Turkish leader and his family. Turkey also has long blocked all erotic sites that are accessible in most democratic countries, subject only to extremely lax self-censorship by platforms protecting themselves against accusations of complicity with such sex crimes as child pornography and sex trafficking. In the liberal West there was a surge of self-righteous indignation after Erdoğan’s clampdown. Most of the complaints directed against Turkey involved allegations they encroached on the rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters.
Considered more objectively, a serious question is raised: should a government have the authority to limit the dissemination by social media of material derogatory to or defamatory of the elected leadership of the country, as well as have a mandate to impose limits on access to sexually explicit material in deference to public morals? Of course, the question is somewhat complicated by the ease by which such blockages can be and are widely circumvented by VPN software here in Turkey or states such as China, which more vigorously regulate platforms to prevent criticism and dissent. In this respect there is a new kind of cyber tug of war between control from the governmental center and libertarian elements in the citizenry. How this multi-dimensional struggle involving technology as well as politics unfolds is among the haunting uncertainties of the Digital Age.
The United States now faces a variant of the same basic concern after Trump’s incitement of his followers on July 6, 2020 to launch a militant and violent demonstration at the U.S. Capitol that has shaken the foundation of American constitutionalism, symbolically and substantively. Lurid pictures of Capitol security personnel herding frightened and endangered elected high officials to safe shelter confirm, not only for Americans, but for the world this drama of right-wing sedition that certainly had the makings of a coup with various indications of support from elements in the police, military, and governmental bureaucracy. Because of Trump’s extensive use of and reliance on a private Twitter account to vent his rage and, more instrumentally, to mobilize his base, it was natural to believe that this behavior menaced the republic, and must be stopped. Since incitement to violence by Trump was being enabled by the Internet, and specifically by Twitter, its decision to suspend his account permanently was widely accepted as reasonable and desirable and, if anything, long overdue. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram followed the Twitter lead, including cancelling Trump’s megaphone that facilitated reaching his millions of followers.
Trump’s account had 88 million followers, many of whom apparently believed, and acted upon, his lies and did his bidding. There is little doubt that Twitter and other social media platforms had been long used by Trump to undermine faith in and loyalty toward constitutionalism in the United States. Such a subversive dynamic escalated after Trump’s electoral defeat on November 4th, reaching a climax with the seditious moves against the Capitol on January 6th. Only then did the tech giants take concerted action against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app. Amazon ended its hosting service, and the impact seems to have been to put the platform at the brink of bankruptcy, and likely soon out of business. These efforts also led to more concerted Internet suppression of Nazi groups, white supremacists, and fake accounts.
In the Turkish experience, the state, as personified by its leader, takes the initiative to establish filters through which only news acceptable to the state can reach the public, consolidating its authority with respect to permissible knowledge as well as regulating what can be publicly disseminated by Internet platforms. This kind of authoritarian approach is complemented by various actions taken by the government, directly and indirectly, to control the flow of information, including intimidation and punitive moves against more traditional TV and print journalists, which can involve loss of jobs and even imprisonment for those targeted. Should such control over social media, and indeed all public communication, be subject to regulation by an overly sensitive governmental leadership? Or is it preferable to let the winds of freedom blow without minimal authorized self-interested interference by the state?
The current U.S. situation exhibits an opposite set of issues, entrusting private sector digital giants to become self-anointed monitors of political propriety of an autocratic leader on the Internet. From one perspective, such monitoring reflects a benevolent bias toward decentralization of authority by allowing companies, rather than the state, to draw the disciplinary lines of political and moral propriety in public discourse which, if crossed, will serve as tripwire to censorship or even as here, a targeted denial of access and use rights to individuals, including the elected leader currently serving out the remainder of his time in office. From another perspective, an acceptance of such patterns of control empowers corporate and financial elites to serve as guardians of civic virtue despite their wealth and use of money that is partly responsible for the weakening of the fabric of democracy, so long conceived as governance by ‘we, the people.’
In many respects, these tech giants undermine and distort the interaction of diverse points of view. A truly free society depends on avoiding unhealthy concentrations of power in private sector entities that possess quasi-monopolistic influence. With respect to social media, it is not only a concern about predatory economic practices, but about manipulations of the mind, and shaping the rules governing the political play of forces. Of course, incitements to domestic insurrection should not be considered ‘free expression,’ being more akin to shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater, and should instead be seen as exceptions to a broad tolerance of the use of social media to further disparate worldviews.
There is another issue that has been totally overlooked in the post-Capitol discussions. We need international rules and a comprehensive regime to govern transnational communications, including by social media, in the Digital Age. Incitement by words and deeds against foreign governments should be as taboo as is such behavior against our own. At present, with mainstream media complicity, the U.S. Government and the public overall feels abused by Russian hacking of government files while engaged in a variety of such activities throughout the world ourselves.
The U.S., in particular, has for many years suffered from an acute form of ‘geopolitical bipolarity’ without even noticing the cognitive dissonance of vigorously carrying out a variety of lethal schemes to destabilize foreign governments that our deep state and governing political class dislikes while denouncing as foul play even feeble attempts by foreign governments to retaliate in kind. We as a country must adhere to policies and practices based on international law as reinforced by reciprocity, meaning desisting from behavior against others that we deplore when it threatens ourselves, but such a course of action would be a major departure from still prevailing ideas of hierarchy, American exceptionalism, and impunity that have guided U.S. grand strategy ever since the end of World War II. Our most thoughtful ideologues may praise the virtues of a rule-based liberal international order, but our geopolitical behavior sends a different message to the world.
Concretely expressed, when we allow presidential boasts about international crimes to be freely transmitted on social media headquartered in the U.S. without blinking, while moving vigorously to protect the social and political order at home from those who would destroy it from within and without, a defective America-first ethic is being unwittingly endorsed. It is time to revive the prime ethical imperative: ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you,’ or more pointedly, ‘do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you.’ Otherwise the hypocrisy of domestic thought control in defense of democratic constitutionalism feeds continuing self-delusions about American innocence abroad.
As a poignant example, I think of President Trump’s inflammatory and false boast on January 3, 2020, justifying the unlawful targeted killing a year ago by attack drone of General Qassim Soleimani of Iran while this important leader of a state was on a diplomatic mission in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi. To allow such an international crime to be obscured by state propaganda is illustrative of a broader pattern of self-deception at home and anti-American hostility abroad. For instance, in the aftermath of this assassination, the leadership of Iraq asked that the U.S. Government remove its armed forces from the country. The fact that this has not yet happened is more a reflection of complex regional geopolitics than it is an expression of an Iraqi change of heart.
I have personally experienced abuses of such regulatory authority, informally and formally, as a response to my words and actions in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their long struggle for basic rights. The adoption of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism is broad enough to encompass nonviolent peaceful campaigns such as BDS or public advocacy viewed as anti-Zionist or harshly critical of Israel. My Facebook postings and lectures have been occasionally blocked and cancelled as a result of such anti-democratic and misleading Internet posting purporting to guard against my ‘anti-Semitic’ views. The effect has been defamatory damage to my overall reputation, but it is of trivial consequence compared to the life-changing harm done to such important scholars (e.g. Norman Finkelstein, Steven Salaita) who lost jobs and to journalists and experts whose professional standing was seriously tarnished.
Where political passions are strong and leverage is not balanced by countervailing pressures, social media platforms and mainstream media impose controls that tend to maintain one-sided and hegemonic presentations of events that should receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy is to remain vital, but an inhibiting message is sent out that discourages citizens from challenging the distortions of self-censorship. We grow numb, hardly noticing that ideologues such as Alan Dershowitz have their opinion pieces published and are invited as guest experts while Noam Chomsky’s far greater forthrightness and intellectual eminence is rendered invisible because of his political views. And as it happens, Chomsky, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, offers a critical voice on the side of justice, while Dershowitz mindlessly sides with the oppressors. Such asymmetry is illustrative of the bitter fruit of private sector controls, abetted by some interaction with governments, over the flows of information and opinion in public space.
For these reasons it seems a dangerous mistake to address these issues of principle under the stress of extreme conditions generated by Trump in the aftermath of the lost November elections, culminating in the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. Given the genuine national emergency resulting from an abusive president, the ad hoc responses of social media were benevolent in this instance, despite setting off alarms about entrusting the guardianship of democracy in the Digital Age to for-profit private sector actors, especially given the concentration of market control, the wealth, and the record of regressive one-sidedness not only of social media, but of more traditional print and TV outlets.
The pre-digital political life of the United States was already severely tilted to the right as a result of allowing money to pour toxic substances on the electoral process by which public officials at all levels of society are selected, as well as to fashion media empires around quasi-fascist worldviews. There is also a dumbing down effect as the opposition, especially if not aligned with Wall Street or Silicon Valley, must itself beg for money rather than focus on issues, programs, and socio-economic justice. The result is the commodification of political life where beliefs and values are monetized.
Behind the tumult is the Trump electoral defeat in 2020, which Trump falsely attributed to reality-defying fraud, a macabre fairy tale that was accepted by an astonishing 70% of those who had voted for him and even a significant number of lawmakers who probably knew better, but thought their political careers would suffer more from breaking with Trump than sticking with him. But perhaps more astonishing is the nature of Biden’s victory. It was a clear political victory, 306-232 in electoral college votes, and a margin just over seven million in the popular vote. Yet, in one sense it was revealingly close, and actually registered a Republican victory in many state-level elections across America. If California and New York are removed from the Biden column, Trump wins in the electoral college and, narrowly, even the popular vote. By federalist logic, a large majority of the states making up the union endorsed the Trump presidency even in the face of his malignancy as a leader, exhibited most devastatingly his COVID denialism that cost many lives and much misery, and brought the economy tumbling down. What should we as a country learn from this movement built by such a sinister demagogic pied piper?
From another angle, if COVID had not occurred, the economy would have remained strong, unemployment low, and no health crisis present to spoil his record of ‘achievements.’ In such an atmosphere, there seems little doubt that Trump would have rather easily prevailed by a margin no smaller than his surprise victory in 2016. What do these looks beneath the surface tell us, not only about the election, but about the public and governmental acceptance of four years of governance that deepened class, ethnic, and gender differences; that hurt badly the U.S. world reputation; that adopted a catastrophic denialist stand toward climate change; that championed alternative realities and proudly proclaimed post-truth guidelines; while ignoring urgent socio-economic disparities and infrastructure?
This Trump experience requires more than censorship, whether by the state or private sector. Above all, it calls for renewed attention to the deficiencies of citizen education. We have post-modern technology in a society that still cleaves to the worst forms of superstitious pre-modern worldviews. It is time for another ‘war,’ this time a ‘war on ‘ignorance.’ After Trump, the country needs a Second Enlightenment more even than the rectification of such evils as systemic racism, ecological disregard, and commodified democracy.