In December 2016, when then-President-elect Donald Trump summoned tech leaders to Trump Tower for a roundtable discussion, there was considerable debate about whether or not executives like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella should accept the invitation.1 I argued that they absolutely should in this Daily Update (which is now free-to-read):
Beyond that, though, elections have consequences. Consider immigration, the first reason on Swisher’s list for refusing the meeting: during the campaign Trump was not exactly shy about stating his position on immigration, and while I and just about everybody else in tech vehemently disagree with that position, the fact remains that Trump won. For tech executives to refuse to even meet with the president-elect absent his retracting the foundational issue of his campaign is to seek to defy democracy through belligerence. Make no mistake: those same executives absolutely should seek to influence and/or defeat whatever legislation Trump proposes on the matter, but disagreeing on legitimate political issues like immigration, trade, etc. is not a reason to spite democracy.
More importantly, though, is that calling the United States a democracy is incomplete; we are a (small ‘l’) liberal democracy: that is not only do we elect our representatives, but we also are governed by the rule of law and the guarantee of individual rights and personal liberty. That our liberalism may be under threat is a far graver concern than bad policy decisions; I’m by no means denigrating the terrible outcomes that can result from bad policy, but said policy can be reversed by winning the next election. The loss of liberalism, on the other hand, reduces democracy to a sham.
In short, Trump opponents need to pick their battles: conflating policy with which you disagree with fundamental attacks on civil liberties is, per my second point, itself an attack on those civil liberties, and ineffective to boot. To that end, my advice for these executives would be draw clear lines: with regards to the infringement of civil liberties, there should be no compromise; with regards to legitimate political disagreements, there should be the registration of clear opposition with the admission that the law will be followed.
My ultimate advice was as follows:
The priorities of everyone, including these executives, must be clear:
- Liberalism is inviolable
- Democracy must be respected
- Bad policies should be opposed
Responding to an invitation from the president-elect is in this case governed by the second priority, not the third; one hopes we will never reach a point where it is the first priority that is in play, but if we do that will be the time to put everything — including a company’s stock price — on the line.
Yesterday’s Trump-incited mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol hasn’t been the only Trump-related crisis; the principles in that Daily Update have guided my thinking in how to navigate other controversies, particularly last summer when Twitter and Facebook faced renewed demands to remove Trump tweets. I argued that the services were right to leave them up, in no small part because Donald Trump was the democratically-elected President; from Dust in the Light:
In fact, that is what is so striking about the demands that Facebook act on this particular post (beyond the extremely problematic prospect of an unaccountable figure like Zuckerberg unilaterally deciding what is and is not acceptable political speech): the preponderance of evidence suggests that these demands have nothing to do with misinformation, but rather reality. The United States really does have a president named Donald Trump who uses extremely problematic terms — in all caps! — for African Americans and quotes segregationist police chiefs, and social media, for better or worse, is ultimately a reflection of humanity. Facebook deleting Trump’s post won’t change that fact, but it will, at least for a moment, turn out the lights, hiding the dust.
The question that has been raised in the weeks since the election, though, particularly yesterday, is whether Trump’s tweets are themselves a threat to Principle 2. Casey Newton, who has by-and-large agreed with me about how the platforms should handle Trump, has seen enough; from The Verge:
For years, I opposed Twitter and others deplatforming the president. My reasons were largely practical ones. Surely, the president would decamp to a smaller site if banned; surely, a Twitter bot would scrape and instantly tweet anything he posted elsewhere, largely defeating the point of a ban. As irritating as the move surely would have been to Trump, I thought, the gesture would largely have been symbolic. And at the end of the day, the man was the duly elected president.
No longer. Americans voted Trump out of office, but instead of accepting that result, he has sought to overturn it. By inciting the violent occupation of the US Capitol, Trump has given up any legitimate claim to power. In 14 days, barring catastrophe, he will be out of office. The only question is how much damage he will do in the meantime — and we know, based on long experience, that his Twitter and Facebook accounts will be among his primary weapons…
Were today January 21, 2021, and Trump were no longer President, I would agree with Newton; I am exceptionally close to agreeing with him today, as well. One final question remains, though: is this the right level of the stack?
A Framework for Moderation
The other Stratechery article I have returned to during these Trump controversies is A Framework for Moderation, from August 2019. The occasion was Cloudflare’s decision to cease providing distributed-denial-of-service protection for 8chan, the forum where multiple terrorists had planned and celebrated their acts over the previous year. The framework focused on where a company was in the stack:
It makes sense to think about these positions of the stack very differently: the top of the stack is about broadcasting — reaching as many people as possible — and while you may have the right to say anything you want, there is no right to be heard. Internet service providers, though, are about access — having the opportunity to speak or hear in the first place. In other words, the further down the stack, the more legality should be the sole criteria for moderation; the further up the more discretion and even responsibility there should be for content:
I refined this framework while decrying Twitter’s handling of that New York Post story:
The addition I would make to this framework is that responsibility accrues to the layer of agency, both as a matter of principle and of practicality. In other words, the New York Post is responsible for what they publish, and not only should Twitter not decide whether or not that is acceptable as a matter of principle, it needs to recognize that doing so will not kill the story but rather make Twitter’s abuse of power the story. To go in the other direction — to make every part of the stack responsible for everything in the stack — is to inevitably end up in a world of ISP-level control on what we can or cannot see.
This is how we arrive back at Trump’s tweets inciting and celebrating violence at the nation’s capitol, which built on weeks of delegitimizing the most recent election. Newton is right that they are a danger, even as he notes that Twitter can only do so much:
No one should be under the illusion that deplatforming Trump will end the erosion of our democracy. But we saw today that Trump’s continued presence will accelerate it. And should he leave office with his platform intact, he can immediately declare his candidacy for president in 2024 and use it to further escalate his attacks on the republic.
In fact, we have a mechanism for dealing with a President encouraging sedition and refusing to accept a democratic outcome, which not only removes said President from office, but also prevents him from running again: impeachment. It has the added benefit of not setting a precedent of top-down tech control of political speech. It also seems exceedingly unlikely to happen.
Exceptions and Rules
One sentiment I keep returning to when it comes to Trump and social media is sympathy, for Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey in particular. Before Trump it was entirely reasonable for a social network to presume that they did not need special rules for Presidential tweeting, because the norms of the Presidency would sufficiently restrain the President on their own. Trump, though, is clearly exceptional.
The problem with Twitter and Facebook’s response, then, is not treating Trump like the exception he is; instead both companies continue to twist their rules, or make new ones after the fact, to justify what are clearly tortured subjective decisions about Trump’s tweets. Yesterday is a perfect example: Facebook, in explaining why it had taken down two Trump posts (including a video where he celebrated the Capitol intruders, even as he asked them to return home), gave a vague reference to policy violations:
We've assessed two policy violations against President Trump's Page which will result in a 24-hour feature block, meaning he will lose the ability to post on the platform during that time.
— Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) January 7, 2021
Both companies would have been better served by stating the plain truth from the beginning: Trump is the democratically-elected President, which means he can tweet what he wants. It would also establish the framework for what I now believe needs to be done: an exception to the rule.
As I noted above, my preferred outcome to yesterday’s events is impeachment. Encouraging violence to undo an election result one disagrees with is sedition, surely a high crime or misdemeanor, and I hold out hope that Congress will act over the next few days, as unlikely as that seems. That is, as I noted, the right level of the stack wherein to act.
Sometimes, though, the right level doesn’t work, yet the right thing needs to be done. That, ultimately, is why I defended Cloudflare in 2019; CEO Matthew Prince told me in an interview:
If this were a normal circumstance we would say “Yes, it’s really horrendous content, but we’re not in a position to decide what content is bad or not.” But in this case, we saw repeated consistent harm where you had three mass shootings that were directly inspired by and gave credit to this platform. You saw the platform not act on any of that and in fact promote it internally. So then what is the obligation that we have? While we think it’s really important that we are not the ones being the arbiter of what is good or bad, if at the end of the day content platforms aren’t taking any responsibility, or in some cases actively thwarting it, and we see that there is real harm that those platforms are doing, then maybe that is the time that we cut people off.
Remember my highest priority, even beyond respect for democracy, is the inviolability of liberalism, because it is the foundation of said democracy. That includes the right for private individuals and companies to think and act for themselves, particularly when they believe they have a moral responsibility to do so, and the belief that no one else will. Yes, respecting democracy is a reason to not act over policy disagreements, no matter how horrible those policies may be, but preserving democracy is, by definition, even higher on the priority stack.2
Turn off Trump’s account.
- The full list of executives were Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Google CEO Larry Page and then-Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oracle CEO Safra Catz, Intel then-CEO Brian Krzanich, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, and IBM then-CEO Ginni Rometty; neither Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg nor Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey were there [↩]
- And if this prompts a much more serious discussion about the power of these companies, all the better [↩]