Freedom to express, but not freedom to incite?

Western liberal democracies pride themselves on the right to freedom of expression. But social media has within the last decade or so had a profound impact on the possibilities of political expression.

The suspension of Donald Trump’s access to Twitter, Facebook and now YouTube following the assault on the Capitol on 6th January has opened up a new debate on whether this ban is contrary to the right of free speech.

The irony is that Trump’s supporters have accused these social media companies of undermining democracy by banning free speech, yet their idol has been constantly undermining democracy since the election with his unfounded and now frankly ludicrous allegations of voter fraud.

The reality that Twitter as the enabler of such incitement could have faced prosecution, (and potentially lost millions of dollars of advertising revenue) so they’re really only covering their own @rses. But as I’m not quite a cynic yet I’ll add that perhaps they were exercising some degree of social responsibility at the same time.

If Trump had been a private citizen he would almost certainly have faced legal action for what happened, even though he didn’t explicitly tell his supporters to use violent means.

In fact Twitter had been incredibly tolerant during the election count when every five minutes the POTUS was tweeting without a shred of evidence about stolen votes. His tweets were still being published but Twitter added a disclaimer to say that the contents were disputed. The problem is, as Robert Campbell of this parish points out in his recent conspiracy theories article, if an influential authority figure constantly repeats a lie and presents it as a fact, people will eventually believe it to be fact. But even if not all the Trumpists who stormed the Capitol actually believed the election to was rigged, they clearly still felt a pressing need to seek “justice” by preventing Biden’s accession – and what better justification for this than an endorsement from the president himself?

If Cletus J McQuackett III of Hicksville, Tennessee urges all 15 of his Twitter followers to get out of their bedrooms and away from their PlayStations to invade the Capitol no-one will pay much attention. But when the President of the USA does the same thing, it’s quite a different matter.

When placed in the wrong hands social media platforms can be deadly weapons. As Lauren Gambino in The Guardian observes Twitter for Trump was “perhaps most dangerously, a place where he sought to bend reality to his will, unleashing a combustible, near-daily stream of misinformation, lies and outrage to his more than 87 million followers”.

Contrary to what some of his supporters may say, Trump has not been silenced. He still appears on out TV screens and radio airwaves.

He has simply been banned by a number of giant tech corporations, not by any agents of the state or legislative bodies. The big tech companies certainly do have immense global power – possibly an unintended consequence of free market capitalism – but that’s a whole other debate.

The closest local example of political expression being banned at legislative level is the infamous broadcasting ban on members of Sinn Féin and other alleged terror-supporting organisations, both loyalist republican during the late 80s/early 90s. A counterproductive move which was risibly circumvented by the legal loophole of using actors to voice the words of such spokespersons. I remember one recorded interview with Martin McGuinness on the BBC’s Newsnight where the voiceover actor’s attempt at a Derry accent was comparable to Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent in Mary Poppins. These were of course the days before social media. But at least when Trump appears on mainstream media the voice you hear will still be that of Donald J Trump rather than Bruce Willis or Kelsey Grammer.

Some commentators (mostly on the right) have accused Twitter of hypocrisy, pointing out that despite his occasionally inflammatory statements Iran’s Supreme Leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not been banned from the platform. The fact is though that the greatest threat to American security and stability currently comes from within.

Trump is far from stupid – he would never have achieved what he achieved without the odd brain cell or two – but it’s probably fair to say he lacks a modicum of common sense and in some cases basic reason or empathy.

He’s not the first president to be perceived as not quite the sharpest tool in the box. His fellow Republican predecessors Ronald Reagan and George W Bush were not immune to making the odd gaffe. But Trump doesn’t even seem to care about his ignorance. Suggesting people inject themselves with bleach to expel coronavirus was not one of his finest speeches.

Michael Wolff in Fire and Fury, his no-holds-barred account of Trump’s first year in the White House pulls no punches as to how members of the president’s own inner circle saw him:

“Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s fate was sealed – if his obvious ambivalence towards the president had not already sealed it – by the revelation that he had called the president “a f*cking moron”.

This – insulting Donald Trump’s intelligence – was both the thing you could not do and the thing – drawing there-but-for-the-grace-of-God guffaws across the senior staff – that everybody was guilty of. Everyone in his or her own way, struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and to boot, was confident if not serene in his unquestioned certitudes. There was now a fair amount of back-of-the-classroom giggling about who had called Trump what. For Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus, he was an “idiot”. For Gary Cohn he was “dumb as sh1t”. For H.R. McMaster he was a “dope”. The list went on.”

It’s no big secret that people with large egos are not always gracious in defeat. Witness the sour expression on the face of the then Australian PM John Howard as he handed out the medals to the victorious England world cup rugby team in 2003. Certain football managers of big successful clubs (no need to mention any names here!) are occasionally seen refusing to shake the hand of their opposite number following defeat.

Trump is possibly the most extreme example of such a personality.

I’m reminded of the famous Fawlty Towers episode where one of the hotel guests, a psychiatrist, on witnessing yet another outburst of Basil Fawlty’s eccentric behaviour makes the classic comment “there’s enough material there for an entire conference”.

Despite his soon-to-be-terminated position as leader of the so-called free world, Trump’s behaviour in refusing to accept defeat has been more akin to that of a third world dictator such as Gaddafi or Mugabe.

If the Trump presidency proves one thing though, it’s that someone with no previous political experience can be elected to the highest possible position.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a controversial and outspoken business tycoon has become head of a national government. Not so long ago we had Berlusconi in Italy. And closer to home we had a certain CJ Haughey who not unlike Trump was able to remain in office despite blatant acts of repeated wrongdoing.

In the current era Trump’s accession to power could on this side of the Atlantic be likened to the idea of Ryanair’s much-maligned CEO Michael O’Leary becoming Taoiseach, or the likes of Mike Ashley (of Frasers Group, formerly Sports Direct) or Tim Martin (Wetherspoons) being elected Prime Minister. Perish the thought, but stranger things have happened.

In a few days’ time we will see the end of President Trump, but with or without the help of the social media giants it won’t necessarily be the end of Trumpism. Interesting times lie ahead.

Photo by TheDigitalArtist is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA