The upheaval in social media after the attack on the Capitol was driven by capitalism, not censorship of conservatives.
But the banning or suspension of President Donald Trump's Twitter, Facebook and other accounts — as well as the collapse of the upstart Parler social media site — will accelerate the necessary debate about tech firms' impact on our politics and society.
Trump lost his unfiltered, unchallenged social media megaphone last week when most major social media accounts blocked him for his role in inciting the insurrection on Jan. 6. Twitter, for instance, said in a statement that, "After close review of recent tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence."
After Twitter's move, Parler, a Twitter competitor favored by conservatives, was set to soar with disaffected Trump supporters flocking to the site. But Parler also soon faced the vagaries of various tech companies concerned over its laxly regulated content, some of which was incendiary, insurrection-supporting calls for violence.
First, Apple and Google said they would no longer offer the app to potential new users. Then Amazon said it would no longer host the site on the cloud. Parler may prevail in a lawsuit against Amazon, or get rescued by other tech firms. But for now Parler is no longer a viable alternative.
This has led to charges that the tech companies are violating the right to free speech. While we typically welcome and concur with most defenses of the First Amendment, it's important to acknowledge that the tech companies are private corporations and have the right to decide who has access to their sites and what terms of service are applicable.
"It is not a violation of President Trump's First Amendment rights, nor of his followers' First Amendment rights, for a nongovernmental entity to make editorial decisions such as, 'We're no longer going to allow President Trump to have an account with us,'" Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, told an editorial writer.
"If you kick off President Trump because you believe that his tweets constitute something that is banned under terms of service, which is glorification of violence, then you are simply, basically enforcing a contractual provision that President Trump and any other user of your platform agreed to," Kirtley said.
The inconsistent, if not incoherent, application of Twitter's terms of service should concern everyone — repressive regimes are represented on most social media sites, after all. It certainly has concerned Congress, which has harangued social media leaders for their content, which is often rife with dangerous disinformation — including lies about the election that Trump lost.
In contrast to content concerns, Republican lawmakers have generally focused more on a perceived bias against conservatives. But the social media business model is to aggregate, not aggravate, users, and Twitter faced its own marketplace response in the immediate aftermath of banning Trump as its stock price dropped. And Facebook, for one, knows the market power of the marketplace of ideas, since its top-trending content is often overwhelmingly from conservative contributors.
What's more, Kirtley said, conservatives themselves should best understand the rights of corporations to make calls about their sites. "I find it really ironic that the great champions of free enterprise would be questioning this," she said.
Conservatives, liberals and moderates alike should be questioning the ever-increasing influence of social media, and whether "Big Tech" is in fact too concentrated. This is and should be the purview of Congress, as well as the Justice Department's antitrust division.
But if free speech rights do not extend to shouting fire in a crowded theater, they also don't protect inciting an insurrection.