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Facebook and the Eclipse of Political Solutions

This morning Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld Facebook’s ban on Donald Trump. Yesterday, NPR’s Rachel Martin wondered about how much control social media should have over free speech. With no political efforts to censure Trump, the consequences for his near treasonous speech of January 6 are left to be doled out by private corporations. This situation, I argue, is where the long-developing eclipse of politics in favor of private solutions has led us. If neoliberalism is the marketization of everything, the effort to remove decisions of public concern from public domains into private ones, then the situation in which social media companies have more power over managing the dangerous speech of politicians than the public domain is its logical conclusion.

Even if you are happy with this decision, we should sound the alarms. Not the alarm that Facebook has too much control, though it does. Twitter and Facebook are totally within their rights to ban people from their platforms. They are private companies. That is the problem. Social media is a public utility, and we treat it as such, and then complain that it is run like a private company. But social media companies are private companies. If we want them to be run in such a way that serves the public good, we should nationalize them. Government, not private companies, is constrained by the First Amendment to “make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” If the main site of speech has become private companies, and it seems that companies have more say of speech than the government, then we should really rethink whether those sites of free speech should be private.

Neoliberalism has sapped us of the desire to insist on political solutions and has led us to think that private corporations need to be made to do the right thing by their $130 million-supported oversight boards, rather than by governmental power driven by political pressure. This is wrong-headed. We should not ask private companies to regulate themselves. We should not find satisfaction in private companies punishing those who public officials lack the political will to punish. We should insist on political reckonings.

Already conservatives are bemoaning that Facebook is interfering in the 2024 election. And indeed, Facebook, along with Twitter, seems like the only organization holding Trump accountable. My point is that our satisfaction with this holding accountable is evidence of how much we have ceded the responsibilities of political life to private corporations. We should not find this satisfactory. Not because it wasn’t the right decision, but because the accountability should be a matter of political reckoning. Let’s not cede that space.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. agresseur #

    Facebook and Twitter are in fact a cross-linked organization of individual press venues. It is not freedom of speech that is being regulated by a private corporation but rather an individual means to publish (protected by freedom of the press) born of the communication revolution at the turn of the century. The action of the Facebook board, in fact, is simply a new form of editing. Unlike the ‘Yellow Press’ days of the Spanish American war, though, the power to publish is now universal. I do not agree that neoliberalism has lost it’s desire for solutions but rather created a means as Benjamin Franklin said 1789. “we should in moderation content ourselves with tarring and feathering, and tossing in a blanket.” If Corporations are given rights of individuals in our society to freely give or not give millions of dollars to promote/support a political thought they have in fact acting as individuals driven by a collective that ‘tar and feather’ as a cudgel against ‘impudent writers who hide behind the printer.’ The Corporation is acting as part of a collective society that supports it. If this article was to call out the failure of a political party to provide political consequences then the alarm would rather be called out directly against the sociopathic nature of that party rather than disguising it under the breath of an attack on the liberal approach within a corporate citizen. Let’s say it directly.

    May 5, 2021
    • I thought I was saying it directly! I just didn’t say what you might be wanting to say.

      My point is that political solutions are about fighting something out in the shared commons. Facebook makes private decisions that it alone has power over. Facebook is not a public actor but a private actor. Facebook’s decisions as a private actor might have more of an impact on the common world we share, but they still are not acting as a representative of our common world. Yes, there is a problem with corporations having power as citizens, but the broader problem is that less and less of our common problems are being addressed by citizens and their representatives and more and more of our common problems are being addressed by corporate actors. This trend, which is more than 50 years in the making, deprives us of a common that we might collectively have any say over.

      May 5, 2021
      • agresseur #

        You say this in a country where roughly 50 percent of the population has no representation whatsoever because they live in the wrong color state or have been gerrymandered into political nonexistence. It is not a forum that has been lost but rather the loss of the check and balance by parties upon each other because of ‘the great art of politician’s lies.’ It is not the corporation’s decisions that are the problem. It is a zero sum; winner take all US politics that has created the rise of sociopathicism as a basis for holding onto power by a significant political group. It has weakened the federal government so that it cannot act over these past 50 years. Thus as Noah Webster warned in1786 “people who enjoy an uncommon share of political privileges often carry their freedom to licentiousness, and put it out of their power to enjoy society by destroying its support.” The corporate decision by Facebook to edit the writings of Trump has little, if any, relevance on political voices but merely represents a portion of them as a chastisement of his licentiousness.

        [thank you for expanding the political forum you fear is lost in your writings]

        May 5, 2021

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