Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

13 Jan

Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry

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 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 against 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 of encroachments on rights of free expression and accusations of unwarranted censorship by the state against critics and dissenters. 

More objectively considered 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 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 January 6, 2021 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 permanently his account 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 action concerted against Trump. The niche right-wing platform, Parler, lost its business support, and Apple and Google stopped selling the app, and 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. [For confirmation see Glenn Greenwald, “How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler,’ Information Clearing House, Jan. 13, 2021] 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 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. Until we as a country 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. 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. [For critique of such a political assassination see UN Special Rapporteur Report , A/HRC/44/38 (August 2020; see also my blog, .] 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 be receive balanced treatment. Not only is society deprived of debates on controversial issues needed if democracy 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 is invited as a guest expert 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. [See Michelle Goldberg, “The Scary Power of the Companies That Finally Shut Trump Up,” N Y Times, Jan. 11,2021; and more pointedly, Fraser Meyers, “Like him or not, the censorship of Donald Trump has set a terrifying precedent.” Information Clearing House, Jan. 12, 2021.] 

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 dumning 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 the 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.

6 Responses to “Blocking Twitter & Twitter Blocking Trump: Why We Should Worry”

  1. Ray Joseph Cormier January 13, 2021 at 9:29 am #

    Richard, once again, reading such an enlightened, logically laid out analysis and recognition of the fundamental Realities, makes me feel my writing style is amateur in comparison.
    That being said, I relate to the Spirit of your letter.

    I was not aware of you until I read the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the US Government calling for your dismissal as the UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Rights under the Israeli Occupation. I was not even aware such a position existed and I didn’t know any of the details for why they wanted you fired, but my 1st Instinctual thought was, ‘This man must be doing something Right,’ and searched you out in Google.
    After all these years I’ve followed your Blog since then, this analysis tells me you are still doing something Right!

    I recently learned of New York Representative Antonio Delgado, a Black Rhodes Scholar, and Harvard Law School Graduate. I immediately saw he could be Representative of a new breed of Leader.
    This was my advice to him in an email to his Office and in his Face Book page. He didn’t take it. I also sent an email to Senator Elizabeth Warren early last Friday with the same advice asking her to use her influence in the Party promoting Reconciliation over Retribution..

    Watching from CanaDa, I think you’re making a big mistake with that decision, Congressman Delgado, joining the Democratic Mob Mentality vs the Trump Mob Mentality.

    What do you want? Retribution or Reconciliation?
    Retribution was the guiding factor for the Victor after WWI, and it led to WWII. Reconciliation was tried after WWII for a change, and it worked.

    Trump is already down and hemmed in.
    The White House Staff is leaving the sinking ship, adding to his increasing sense of isolation losing Power.
    There’s not much more damage he can do in the few Days left in his Presidency.

    The US would be even more corrupted than anticipated, if the US Military followed any orders to start any Military hostilities, with only Days left to his Presidency, and the New Administration taking over.
    Hopefully, US Military Leaders would be mindful of The Nuremberg Judgment!

    Calling for Impeachment is as futile as those Republicans objecting to the certified State Election results,.
    The Mob scenes at the capital are a warning, the deluded extreme Militant ‘Patriots” in the Trump Cult of Personality could be embolden to undertake even more Violent Militant Domestic Gorilla Warfare, if they perceive the Democrats kicking their IDOL when he’s down.
    That has to be a practical consideration moving forward, and it’s a Political Decision.

    You just made one I hope you’ll reconsider between Today and Tomorrow! There is nothing wrong with changing one’s Mind after more careful consideration.

    A strong Motion of Censure would gain a majority of Republican & Democratic support in the House and Senate immediately, and combined with the Impeachment last year, would forever tarnish Trump’s Presidency and Legacy.
    What more do Democrats want?

    With your Educational Credentials, you should offer a well worded Motion of Severe Censure, as an alternative to exacerbating an already Divided America even further in the 1st 100 Days of the Biden Presidency he claims will be devoted to fostering Reconciliation between Americans.

    There will be a Congressional Investigation of what happened January 6.
    Trump told his Devotees to come expressly for the Day when there would be no further legal impediment to Biden being President.
    He said it would be WILD, and it was!
    Trump could face Criminal Charges at some Time in the Future for his incitement, but for NOW, don’t pour gasoline on the fire, the only thing this futile Impeachment attempt will do.

  2. Beau Oolayforos January 13, 2021 at 7:04 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Your phrase is telling: “the commodification of democracy”. The US Justice Dept. has long been selectively lax on anti-trust. One of the main responsibilities of government is to foster competitive markets, but the insurance companies and Big Pharm figured out, long ago, how to circumvent that. Now Big Tech has seemingly joined this group of cartels. Lobbyists are a growing, well-paid army. The Swamp has flourished lately. Calls to get money (=corruption) out of politics are deemed impractical.

    The mainstream media could use a cold anti-trust shower also, as they (as you indicate) feed soothing pablum to the home front, to whitewash atrocities abroad. Not long after the Soleiman murders, at least one msm writer referred to Iraq as “a country FORMERLY occupied by the US”.

    You seem too kind – to refer to our government’s conniption fits over foreign interference in US elections, while habitually invading others’ sovereignty – as ‘cognitive dissonance’. But later on, you call it by its true name, hypocrisy. Trump could redeem himself in some measure by pardoning Snowden and Assange.

  3. Mick Napier January 14, 2021 at 2:16 am #

    Very sharp comments, as usual. Too many folk are cheering on Twitter’s silencing of the deranged denizen of the White House without realizing that such corporate power beyond any democratic accountability is not only able to sanction tthose spreading White supremacy but also principled critics of the limitations on domestic democratic rights, not to mention the inbuilt drive to war and devastation of other countries.
    I recall you were prevented from speaking at a 2017 meeting in Edinburgh City Hall on the topic of “Palestine – the Search for a Just Peace”. The topic was deemed “controversial”.
    PS please look in your global.ucsb email inbox for an invitation

  4. Kata Fisher January 15, 2021 at 10:59 pm #

    A Note:

    Dear Professor Falk,

    A Small after thought – “We are in the 21 Century and its time for the Index – and Dark Ages.” Its 2021. I am thinking – what the hell is going to be in 10 years?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_book-burning_incidents

  5. Mike 71 January 16, 2021 at 6:29 pm #

    Allowing Palestinian Islamo-Fascists and their Imperialist supporters to define what is and what is not “Antisemitism” makes about as much sense as allowing the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists to define what is and what is not racism. A similar analogy would be allowing pornographers to define what is and is not misogyny.

    The targeting of Qassem Soleimani, a General in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is not illegal during the course of combat. Soldiers are expected to give their lives for their country. However, the deliberate targeting of civilian non-combatants, as was done during the “Second Intifada,” and Palestinians and their Iranian backers have done since, is clearly illegal and condemned as a War Crime under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Palestinian terrorists have been at war with the State of Israel since its founding in 1948, while the Islamo-Fascist Iranian Theocratic Regime has been at war with Israel since 1979.

    While Israel is amenable to a negotiated two, or (given Palestinian internal divisions,) a three state solution, all major Palestinian factions reject a negotiated compromise, which would provide independent statehood, to a war until victory, driven by an arrogant greedy self-centered sense of entitlement to “all the land between the river (Jordan) and the sea (Mediterranean).” Despite numerous wars initiated by Palestinian and/or Arab groups, those wars have resulted in repeated defeats. Some Arab states tiring of warfare, have “normalized” relations with Israel and profited thereby.

    “Palestinian Authority President for Life” Mahmoud Abbas, now starting the 17th year of the four year term to which he was elected in 2005, had agreed to continue direct negotiations as specified under the Oslo Accords. Abbas, seemingly contented with the status-quo, terminated those negotiations in 2014.

    Given the reality that after nearly 73 years of conflict, the Palestinians are unlikely to accept any negotiated solution and that another war, like all previous wars initiated by the Palestinians and their supporters, Israel should take a page from the history of our World War II Soviet allies, during “The Great Patriotic War (June 22, 1941 – May 9, 1945.)” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flight_and_Expulsion_of_Germans_(1944-1950)

    As the Red Army advanced forward from Stalingrad (now Volgograd) they drove fleeing German Wehrmacht forces and civilians ahead of them out of Soviet territory, out of Koenigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad Oblast), Pomerania, Neumark, Upper and Lower Silesia, the Czech Sudetenland and other German occupied territories. At the Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945), Germany’s eastern border was set at the Oder-Neiesse line. In the 1990 reunification of Germany, the West German government renounced all claims to territory east of the Oder-Neisse border.

    The reasons and justifications for the new German border were as follows:

    1.) Create ethnically homogenous nation-states.

    2.) A German minority would create potentially troublesome “Fifth Columnists.”

    3.) Punishment for perpetration of War Crimes.

    4.) Create antagonism between Soviet satellite states and their neighbors.

    Winston Churchill elaborated in the House of Commons in his speech on the Soviet – Polish Frontier:

    “Expulsion is the method which , in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by the prospect of disentanglement of populations, not even for these large transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions than they have ever been before . . . ”

    The Soviet Union had to deal with nearly four years of Nazi terrorism, from the violation the Ribbentrop – Molotov (Hitler – Stalin) Non-Aggression Pact to
    Victory Day; the Israelis have had to deal with nearly 73 years of ongoing Palestinian terrorism from Independence Day to the present..

    If there is another Palestinian initiated War of Aggression, as there is almost certain to be, the IDF should adopt the Soviet methodology for dealing with it.

    Winston Churchill would have approved; so would have Josef Stalin!

    • Ray Joseph Cormier January 17, 2021 at 4:54 am #

      Allowing Israeli Apartheid Fascists and their Imperialist supporters to define what is and what is not “Antisemitism” makes about as much sense as allowing the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists to define what is and what is not racism. A similar analogy would be allowing pornographers to define what is and is not misogyny.

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