It’s the message, not the medium

Booting Trump and his supporters doesn’t really solve anything

January 14, 2021 5:26 am

Photo illustration by Gordon Johnson of Pixabay. (Used by public domain license)

I agree with U.S. Sen. Steve Daines for all the wrong reasons.

Last week, as Twitter and other social media took the nearly unprecedented step of booting President Donald J. Trump from their platforms, Daines took to the traditional media to demand that the leader of the free world be given his 240 characters back.

Daines called the move “censorship” — a complete misconstruction of the concept (more on that in a second, though).

Yet, count me in the camp that considers many of the social media platforms’ response overreach. It’s the wrong punishment, and like so many well-intentioned actions, could have so many detrimental, unintended consequences.

Free speech is something journalists deal with every day, from the more esoteric arguments about its application to the very real considerations of what to include in reporting and what to trim out. And what is happening at a social media level has everything to do with free speech.

The most important point — one that most of the President’s enablers have conveniently forgotten — is that speech, while free, has consequences. And that’s why I believe that the correct punishment for Trump’s wreckless and treasonous words is not being booted from social media. That is way too easy of a punishment. Instead, full responsibility for his words, not just last week, but for a much longer period leading up to the Capitol riot, is to prosecute him, whether through impeachment or courts, for leading an attempted coup against this country and its institutions.

In many ways, ousting Trump from Twitter is like telling a bank robber that he must use the drive-up instead of go to the lobby next time. It’s not enough.

What Twitter and other social media giants are doing to Trump and some of the others by banning them isn’t censorship. Censorship is a government action to shut down speech, and as much as social media is a commanding presence in our life, it’s not the government. Twitter, Facebook and other social media are privately owned platforms, free to adopt and enforce their own rules. If they decide that Donald Trump has violated their terms, or is bad for their brand, that is their choice. Funny that a bunch of free-market loving capitalists like Daines and the rest of the Republicans become aggrieved when those businesses exercise their free enterprise rights.

It reminds me of the heated conversations that I would have with letter writers when I refused to publish something they had written when I worked in newspapers. They would insist that I was violating their First Amendment rights. But the First Amendment gives license to freedom of speech and the right to produce your own newspaper, it doesn’t give any individual the right to be broadcast or printed in the medium of their choice. Trump is still free to say whatever he wants or even start his own media companies; he is not entitled to use platforms, even as the President of the United States. Our magnificent and elegant system of laws and tradition says that not even the President can demand special treatment.

Twitter and Facebook, though, are sadly wrong and run the risk of playing right into the far-right conspiracy theories. They should continue to ban Trump through the inauguration next week. Free speech, while a right, has consequences and Trump has proven himself utterly incapable of responsibility for his words. He has rightly proven he cannot be trusted and that he could attempt another insurrection. However, a permanent ban — one after he gets out of office — does two very dangerous things.

First, banning Trump or others like him forces questionable speech, ideas and thoughts deeper underground. While I condemn in the strongest way his thoughts and actions, I would rather know about them upfront and deal with them in the brightest light of day.

As a white, middle-class male in a place like Montana, I know how woefully ignorant I was about the deep well of racial hatred and prejudice that existed — and I lived in a state where those feelings were fervently held. I had chosen to believe in the myth of a “post racial” society.

I was wrong.

Call it woke — call it whatever you want — social media helped me see, acknowledge and think much more clearly about the deeper fault lines that exist and will continue to exist beyond the Trump presidency. Forcing that into the darker corners of the internet only allows the mainstream, especially white America, to believe the problem doesn’t exist.

Moreover, giving Trump the boot only plays into right-wing pundits and politicians who want to believe in the liberal cancel culture and intellectual arrogance of the left. It’s way too close to the snowflake argument for me: That liberals are today’s fainting Victorians whenever we hear an idea or thought we don’t like.

But don’t get the smelling salts for me. I want to hear every backward thought of this ragemuffin who happened to get himself impeached — twice. And then, I want to denounce Trump and his ilk’s Tweets by fighting with their thoughts and putting them up against mine in the marketplace of ideas. For too long, the left has played defense when it comes to its ideas and policies; instead, let’s have more discussion, more words and test those thoughts and ideas in public spaces for all to see. And there’s no more public space in today’s world than platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Banning Trump and others from social media won’t stop them or their movements. As Victor Hugo said, you can kill a man but not an idea. What social media is doing by kicking Trump out is assuaging its guilt for not taking stronger measures to flag questionable content, but it’s not solving the problem by essentially changing the channel.

Finally, taking Trump’s Twitter away is a short-sighted punishment. It’s what a parent should do for a misbehaving toddler. But Trump is no child. He is an adult with awesome power and a corresponding responsibility for the safety and leadership of this country.

Trump’s punishment shouldn’t be left in the hands of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Our country must treat Trump like the adult he is. His actions need an equal response, and right now that power rests squarely with Congress and the courts. Make no mistake, America must impeach or mete out consequences for last week’s insurrection lest anyone now or in the future believe what happened was acceptable and should be repeated.

Giving Trump the boot from social media platform shifts our conversation from where it needs to be. We should not be talking about censorship. Instead, let’s talk about accountability.

It’s not the medium. It’s the message.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.