Speech is free, but megaphones are a privilege: Why capitalism is civil society's last best defense against white supremacy

The deadly Capitol Hill riots

Donald Trump wouldn't have been president were it not for Twitter.

That's not me talking. That's what Donald Trump told Tucker Carlson early in his presidency. It was one of the few truthful things Donald Trump may have ever said. Trump used social media to shoot into a political contender from a second-rate reality TV host with a history of making his own casinos go bankrupt.

Trump's emergence in - and quick rise through - right-wing politics began with his outrageous and racist lies about President Obama's citizenship and birthplace. Although birtherism had been a live and active undercurrent in the post-George W. Bush Republican party, it had not received major, amplified, mainstream backing until the arrival of Trump on the political scene. While Trump sent his first tweet in May of 2009, his activity did not ramp up mid until 2011, when he started pushing birtherism as a way to explore a run for president.

Ultimately, Trump would ride the wave of white race grievance masquerading as 'economic anxiety' into the White House during the following election cycle, aided by Russia and a media evermore hungry for controversy, conflict, and sensationalism.

Twitter activity of Donald Trump.png
By: Phoenix777 CC BY-SA 4.0Link

As Trump has himself signaled, nothing has been more instrumental than social media, and Twitter in particular in his quest for political power. As his power grew, especially after he obtained the trappings of the presidency, Republicans lived in fear of mean tweets from their president. Trump had nearly 90 million followers, and he was strikingly effective in sticking his mob on any Republican daring not to drop to their knees for the potentate.

Trump's shooting star brought huge coattails on social media as well. White supremacist and nationalist hate groups associated themselves with Trump (for good reason) and saw exploding popularity online. But they weren't just growing in numbers or in the incendiary nature of their rhetoric. The online hate movement has been flexing its muscle with violence in the real world for some time now. From a deranged gunman's mass murder at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas to a highly orchastrated (but thankfully, ultimately foiled) plot to storm the state capitol and kidnap and execute the governor of Michigan, pro-Trump white supremacists have found not just refuge on social media platforms, but fertile ground for exponential growth in recruitment and radicalization. The real-world consequences of that growth may have culminated in a crescendo on January 6 in the insurrection against the US Capitol but by no means began there.

Social media companies, including the most mainstream ones like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have allowed this to happen for far too long on their platforms with little restrictions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly proclaimed it was not his job to be an arbiter of truth, and Twitter created, out of whole cloth, a policy to essentially exempt from its terms of services accounts of "public interest", clearly designed to allow Donald Trump to get away with murder.

Until he did.

The insurrection at the Capitol and Donald Trump's clear incitement in a speech right before the breach of the Capitol ended up becoming the breaking point for mainstream tech platforms. Suddenly, Trump's years of stoking white supremacist grievance, his open calls on Twitter for his angry mobs to gather in Washignton, DC for a "wild" day on January 6, and his spreading of incendiary lies about the validity of the election rushed to the forefront. That provided the tech companies the impetus to finally do what has been clearly the right thing to do for years but what they had been extraordinarily reluctant to do in the past: ban Donald Trump.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram, instituted an indefinite suspension of Trump's on both platforms. Twitter, after initially giving Trump his account back after a 12-hour pause, thought better of it and banned him permanently, citing the risk of incitement of more violence leading up to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on January 20. Social media companies across the board are taking action to ban Trump and limit exposure to Trumpian, violent, insurrectionist rhetoric and organizing.

The closing of the ranks by tech companies to prevent further violence is not limited to Trump himself. Pro-Trump Twitter-clone Parler, a social media platform filled with insurrectionist conspiracy theorists like Lin Wood and where many of the insurrectionists gathered and communicated caught the short end of the stick, too. As Facebook and Twitter's bans against Trump and clampdown on incendiary, hateful, and violent speech began to drive pro-Trump extremists to Parler, the far-right platform quickly faced bans from Apple and Google app marketplaces for refusing to properly moderate content against hate and violence. Parler went completely offline when Amazon Web Services, the cloud service provider for Parler, cut off the platform for the same reason.

As late as social media and technology companies are to the party - and let's be clear, a wide and deep inquiry needs to ensue to look into their complicity the decade-long flourishing of white supremacy online - it should be notable that the only reason they are now able to crack down against what could become a full-blown civil war (if it isn't too late) is everybody's favorite boogyman: capitalism.

Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Amazon, YouTube, Google are all private companies, and as private actors, they are not restrained by the First Amendment protections of their users. The first amendment only protects people from adverse consequences of speech enforced by the government or law. Private technology companies' relationships with their users are governed by their policies and terms of service. The sole reason they are able to take away the megaphones they provided to rogue actors like Donald Trump is because they are private entities rather than state (government) actors, and there is no Constitutional right to use private resources without limits to one's speech, possession, etc. To the contrary in fact, the Supreme Court held in Citizens United that corporations were entitled to their own freedom of speech, and that includes their right to use their resources however they want in terms of political speech.

Airlines are also beginning to act, albeit slowly, by removing from their flights people who are identified as being part of the mob on Wednesday. Flight attendants unions are asking for large-scale bans by airlines against the hateful attendees due to safety concerns. They, too, can only do so because airlines are private companies and are not restrained by the First Amendment but rather empowered with Constitutional rights of their own.

The same is true for the terrorists who are being identified and losing their jobs. Private employers are free to have their own standards of behavior for their employees, and do not need to ask a first amendment lawyer if their firing of an employee will violate their constitutional rights.

The next big mobilization in private industry needs to come from the financial sector. Banks, credit card networks, and other electronic money transfer protocols controlled and owned by private entities should suspend existing business and refuse to do future business with insurrectionists and seditionists, at least as it relates to the acts of domestic terrorism on January 6.

Socialists who have fancied themselves fighters for the people by demanding that large industries be nationalized in order to turn them into public services should understand that it would be near impossible to fight the scourge of white supremacist domestic terrorism if industries like social media companies, airlines, and banks were not private entities.

Social media and technology companies, most of all, would be powerless against stopping Trump's deranged, lunatic, violent rants since his hate speech would still be treated as free speech and the platforms, as state actors, could do nothing. A nationalized airline industry would be forced to carry insurrectionists back and forth between their homes and the place where they can raise the confederate flag over the US Capitol. A nationalized banking sector would have no choice but to do business with white supremacists and hate groups so long as they claimed to be unaffiliated with the violence perpetrated by their members.

Think about this: against international terrorists, or even against states deemed to have offered support to international terrorist networks, the US government can deploy wide-net measures like cutting off their access to global financial networks, making it difficult or impossible for them to transport by air, cut off their arms supply, and more. The only entities that can take similar actions against domestic terrorists are private entities. Even if a federal law were to be enacted making it possible for the FBI to track domestic social media activities and for federal prosecutors to charge it as a crime, it will still not be able to constrain the First Amendment rights of those seeking to radicalize others, let alone that of a sitting president of the United States.

Ultimately, the intersection of free speech completely unrestrained by government and peaceful civil society is incompatible with the core tenet of socialism: large scale state ownership of industry and the means of production. Indeed, the only truly socialized institution in America, the military, does not have full freedom of speech and can even be prosecuted for criticizing the commander in chief. Therefore, socialization of large industries will either result in loss of freedom of speech in civil society (if you assume Congress has powers in civil industry like instituting rules for the military) or, much more likely, the complete loss of the ability of civil society to limit the megaphones handed to the most extreme, hateful, and violent members of society.

In a democratic society that prizes free speech as absolute, checks on extremist speech by civil society are paramount if it is to not be in a constant state of civil strife. Speech is free, but megaphones are not. It is not necessary to forcibly silence the radicals in order to limit radicalism from spreading; all that is needed is to take away the megaphones the radicals use in order to spread the incitement that results in violence. Since the government is severely restricted from putting restrictions on political speech, however radical, civil society must act as an additional, effective filter. And those institutions in civil society must themselves be free from real or effective government ownership.

This does not mean that the government has no business regulating private industry for public interest. Nor does it mean that corporations should get away with paying little to no taxes or with putting their profits over the core interests of the public - in fact, it is exactly this disregard of public safety in favor of profits that allowed Trump and his mob to rise on social media. But there is absolutely an imperative that they remain non-government, private entities so that they can play a responsible role in society independent of the restrictions placed on government.

In a country like ours, capitalism is civil society's last, best defense against white supremacy.