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.