Facebook’s ban on former President Donald Trump worries me. And Germany, France — and even Russia’s opposition leader — seem to share my concerns. Each spoke out after Facebook and Twitter barred Trump from their platforms. And Wednesday, Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the ban.
Historically speaking, Germany and France haven’t always gotten along. But after news of the ban first came down early this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — widely seen as a moderate pragmatist and hardly a Trump fan — characterized the move as “problematic.” France’s finance minister called the social media companies a “digital oligarchy,” and a threat to democracy. Aleksei Navalny, the heavily persecuted Russian opposition leader, said the ban was an “unacceptable act of censorship.”
And that doesn’t mean I condone the events of Jan. 6. Looting and trespassing; violence and mayhem — this is not patriotism, especially within a temple of democracy.
Of course there are plenty of people who went to Washington, D.C., that day to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. But those who broke the law and assaulted police officers in the line of duty are rightly being held accountable.
Yet, even the events of Jan. 6 don’t justify banning a sitting head of state from the two most important channels of public discourse. Certainly, there’s plenty to condemn about Trump’s character and dealings, and there’s plenty to condemn about Trump’s rhetoric, which certainly fostered the conditions of the Jan. 6 attack. But, in our American system, the way to counter bad political speech — or speech with which we disagree — is to counter that speech with better speech.
We deploy persuasion in the United States, not coercion.
There’s no question that Facebook and Twitter are private companies. But there’s also no question that they made their wealth by creating a public forum for open exchange. And the precedent of de-platforming a major political leader (especially one with whom they have a strained relationship) could take us in a dangerous direction where the practical policing of speech in the free world becomes the practical purview of unaccountable private companies rather than public officials, who are ultimately accountable to voters.
Multinational, private corporations do not always have the interests of American voters at heart. Sometimes they play favorites to markets that are hostile to U.S. interests. If they have the power to de-platform politicians that stand in their way — especially ones that threaten to regulate them — it represents a grave concern to the chief pillar of our democracy: free and open debate.