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Is Big Tech Too Powerful? Chris Hedges & Ramesh Srinivasan Debate Twitter & Facebook Banning Trump

StoryJanuary 11, 2021
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Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies have removed President Trump from their platforms, after years of debate about the disinformation he shared to millions of followers from his accounts. While many are applauding the bans, author Chris Hedges warns they could backfire. “To allow these companies to essentially function as de facto platforms for censorship and manipulation … harkens back to the way civil liberties were eviscerated in the wake of 9/11,” says Hedges. “It’s always, in the end, the left that pays for this kind of censorship.” We also speak with UCLA professor Ramesh Srinivasan, director of the Digital Cultures Lab, who says Big Tech allowed right-wing extremism to flourish for years before acting and that lawmakers need to enact robust regulation. “All of these technology platforms, powered by their hidden algorithms that are indeed opaque, thrive on the amplification of polarization,” says Srinivasan. “It is incredible how much power we have given to a very small number of people who are essentially mediating pretty much every aspect of our lives.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

After years of debate, Twitter and Facebook have removed President Trump from their platforms. Today we’ll host our own debate on the moves by Big Tech.

Twitter permanently suspended Trump Friday, cutting off his instant line of communication with 89 million followers, after reviewing two tweets it said could incite violence and contribute to a possible, quote, “secondary attack” on the U.S. Capitol and other government facilities next weekend, ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday. Trump’s tweets were, quote, “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” and Trump also tweeted that he, quote, “will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20,” unquote.

Meanwhile, Facebook and Instagram, which are the same company, have now suspended Trump at least until Inauguration Day. Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, and Snapchat also disabled Trump’s accounts. Other platforms that have now banned or restricted Trump include TikTok, Reddit, Snapchat and Shopify.

Meanwhile, Apple, Google and Amazon Web Services ended their support for the social media network Parler over the weekend, which bills itself as Twitter without rules. The companies say Parler’s managers have consistently failed to halt threats of violence and calls for armed insurrection on the site. Parler was co-founded by the Republican megadonor Trump supporter Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer.

All of this comes as critics argue Facebook, Google and Twitter have peddled extremism for profit for years. Now the payment processing company Stripe has cut ties with the Trump campaign, which continues to fundraise, saying it violated policies against encouraging violence after the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol last Wednesday.

For more on Big Tech’s response to the Capitol insurrection, we begin with Ramesh Srinivasan. He’s professor of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, where he also directs the Digital Cultures Lab. Professor Srinivasan is the author of the book Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.. After we speak with him, we’ll host a debate with professor Srinivasan and Chris Hedges.

So, Professor, if you can start off — a lot of people may not even be familiar with some of these sites, but if you can talk about what has happened in the last week with Big Tech?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah, absolutely, Amy. It’s great to be back with you.

Yeah, I think it’s really important to note that as we sit through this pandemic, we are more technologically reliant than ever before. Our lives are mediated by private corporations, right? And so, big technology companies have had to take a stand in recent days about their relationships, which, quite frankly, are highly symbiotic with President Trump — and this is something we’ve discussed before — because many big technology companies thrive around the amplification of spectacle, meaning their goal, like pretty much any media network, is to keep you on there as much as possible, to keep your attention glued. And there is no one better at disorienting, polarizing, inflaming and stirring people up than President Trump. So they have been strange bedfellows and, in many cases, on an economic level, allies for many years.

I think, you know, quite belatedly, honestly, there were decisions made, after the horrific events of last week, where there were clear linkages between President Trump’s behavior, both online and offline, and the domestic white supremacist terror incident that we saw last week. I think these companies have realized they needed to cut bait at some point. But, in my opinion, they have never taken a stand in the public interest. And for us to praise them at this point is not really getting at the whole picture.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we go to our debate, explain what Parler is.

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah, Parler — it’s very important to note the connections, actually, between Parler and Cambridge Analytica, which I know you and many networks have done a lot of reporting on. Rebekah Mercer, as you mentioned earlier, is one of the founders of Parler. Her and her father, Robert Mercer, were the founders, along with Steve Bannon, who was intimately involved with Cambridge Analytica. Parler was set up rhetorically almost and has grown and boomed as a sort of alternative social media platform for the conservative and “alt-right” and, unfortunately, even more kind of right-wing, Neo-Nazi, white supremacist-type movements.

Trump, despite his incredibly positive and symbiotic relationship with Big Tech on every level, has railed against Big Tech over the last several months and has falsely claimed that it is responsible for his election loss and the losses for Republicans in the past. Parler was set up as an alternative for people on the right to flock to. But, very importantly, content that might start or bubble up on Parler tends to translate across different technology platforms by what I call a media ecology. So stuff might start on Parler, just like it started on 4chan or Reddit or other kinds of platforms, but then it becomes the new normal on platforms that are much more mainstream, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

AMY GOODMAN: So, to debate Big Tech’s response to the Capitol insurrection and whether social media should be banning President Trump for life or until he’s out of office, we’re joined by Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, award-winning author and activist. He is a regular columnist for Scheerpost. His latest article is headlined “The Empire Is Not Done with Julian Assange.” He’s written numerous books, including, most recently, America: The Farewell Tour. Still with us, Ramesh Srinivasan, professor of information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA, where he also directs the Digital Cultures Lab.

Chris, can you start off by responding to Twitter permanently banning Donald Trump?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, Twitter, all of these digital platforms are not neutral arbiters. In fact, they’re, of course, for-profit corporations with close ties to the security state. And if you look back over the past few years, they have imposed heavy forms of censorship and interference, primarily on the left, and in particularly on WikiLeaks. So, they blocked the ability for WikiLeaks to accept donations on PayPal and every other platform. Every time WikiLeaks would hold a press conference, there would be interference, electronic interference. People couldn’t get in the room. They’ve used algorithms. And then we saw, again, their very partisan activity during the campaign when they locked the New York Post out of its own Twitter account because it had published stories about the revelations found on the discarded or abandoned laptop from Hunter Biden, which, in retrospect, have proven quite serious. Glenn Greenwald took a very heroic stance on this, and The Intercept wouldn’t publish his story.

So, to allow these opaque — and remember, these companies know everything about us; we know nothing about them. To allow these companies to essentially function as de facto platforms for censorship and manipulation — I’m not in any way minimizing what happened last week — harkens back to the way civil liberties were eviscerated in the wake of 9/11 — the PATIOT Act, which the great civil rights attorney Michael Ratner called a coup d’état, the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force Act. So, responding to a crisis — and I think we do live in a crisis. I have written about this right-wing, nativist fascist. My book, American Fascist, came out in 2006, so I’m very cognizant of the very real threat that we face. But to respond by, in essence, empowering these private corporations to function as censors over billions of people will come back to haunt us. And we see that, because it’s not just Trump they target. It’s always, in the end, the left that pays for this kind of censorship.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Srinivasan, if you can respond to this? And also, let’s just point out that Twitter’s move didn’t start with the leadership. It started with 300 Twitter employees signing a petition calling for him, Trump, to be permanently banned, saying, “We must examine Twitter’s complicity in what President-Elect Biden has rightly termed insurrection. Those acts jeopardize the wellbeing of the United States, our company, and our employees.”

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: I mean, that itself is a great example of how publicly unaccountable a company like Twitter is. And that is true across the board when it comes to Big Tech companies. Big Tech companies have become — are private corporations, that we’re talking about some of the wealthiest corporations in the history of the world. During this pandemic alone, hundreds of billions of dollars have been made primarily by tech magnates. That is really important to point out. And that’s only going to be the new normal as we head toward, you know, climate crises, possible future pandemics and so on.

But I very much agree with the point that was made by Mr. Hedges. Twitter is self-serving. These Big Tech companies are self-serving. There are many right-wing trolls who are going viral, as we speak, on Twitter right now. All of these technology platforms, powered by their hidden algorithms, that are indeed opaque, thrive on the amplification of polarization, the amplification of attention. They are able to computationally predict what will grab our eyeballs. And the disorienting, propagandist, hateful kinds of content that comes out of President Trump on Twitter makes him an incredible ally.

And that is why it’s extremely important for us to take note of the much larger issue, which is our public lives, our economic lives, our political lives, even our intimate lives, our behavioral lives, are all governed by private technology companies that know far more about us than we will ever know about them. And that’s why I believe we really need to transform and regulate technology companies in the image of justice and balance and compassion.

AMY GOODMAN: But what about Chris Hedges’ concern that, yes, they’re turning on Trump right now, who they have enormously profited from over the years, but next it may well be you?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Oh, absolutely. There is no public governance. There is no public accountability. It could be any of us, Amy. It was with WikiLeaks, as Chris Hedges pointed out. Yeah, it is incredible how much power we have given to a very small number of people, who are essentially mediating pretty much every aspect of our lives.

And I really believe that this is why we need true regulatory intervention at this time. And we’re at a very unique moment when it comes to these issues. We have a large-scale agreement across the American population, and actually, in many cases, around the world, to do something about these issues with Big Tech.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Chris Hedges, not all speech in this country is, to say the least, simply allowed. I mean, you’re not supposed to be able to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, for example. As you pointed out, you yourself have been warning for years about American fascism. How does President Trump, the support for this insurrection, not fall into that category for you?

CHRIS HEDGES: Because he doesn’t specifically call for violence. And, you know, this goes back to the attempt on the state of Mississippi to go after the NAACP for violence that had been carried out, trying to blame the NAACP for this violence. And it went all the way up to the Supreme Court, I think, 1982. And they ruled, essentially — it was a unanimous decision — that this kind of speech, the kind of speech that Trump laid out, is actually protected, and even if it results in violence, they can’t go after the person who carried out that speech. So, if you give a strong — that case said that if you give a strong speech against segregation and that there is some kind of violence carried out, you’re not responsible.

So, I think that I would love to see Trump impeached. Ralph Nader and Bruce Fein have drawn up a list of 12 real impeachable offenses, not just a shakedown of the Ukraine. But, of course, I think the Democratic Party has been complicit in this administration. They could have impeached Trump the first week just on the Emoluments Clause alone, the perpetuation of nine wars, if we count Yemen, that were never declared by Congress. But they didn’t do it, because they saw Trump as a fundraising tool. The media has made tons of money off of Trump. Again, as was pointed out, the digital platforms love Trump as essentially keeping people on their platforms — again, profit-driven.

And now we’ve ended up, in the final week of the Trump administration, with people attempting to respond to the deterioration of the American political system and the judiciary and the checks and balances and everything else. But I think that, clearly, if we kind of coldly read what Trump said to his supporters, he didn’t call for people to break into the Capitol and take people hostage.

AMY GOODMAN: Certainly, he and his family, in just the speeches alone at this rally, as he talked about he would be with them, but, of course, then he sneaked back to the White House and was not with them, but they talked about “trial by combat.” They talked about getting Republicans who were not standing up for Trump. And you see all of the responses. As he watched what took place, the massive violence at the Capitol, Trump tweeted, “We love you. You’re special people.”

Ramesh Srinivasan, what do you want to see, as you support Trump being banned permanently from Twitter, to come from this? What do you see happening? Also, Stripe has said they won’t process his credit cards. You’ve got Shopify, which he uses. You know, money matters, to say the least, to Trump. And you’ve got Reddit, you’ve got Snapchat, you’ve got YouTube — all of these taking Trump down.

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think that the solution to this issue and any future issues comes from hoping that Twitter does the right thing. Twitter has decided to ban Trump, and the other tech companies are now cutting bait with Trump, because it’s just gone a step too far, and they all recognize the Biden administration is incoming.

I really think that what we need to do is, long before we get to this point, have public audit, public intervention and public accountability into technology companies. So, you know, this is what I’ve been calling a Digital Bill of Rights. But basically what I’m talking about here is, we need to have full disclosure over what is being collected about us, how that which is being collected about us is influencing what we see. We need to have the ability for third parties to have audit, you know, continuous audit, over these technology platforms. We need to rein in some aspects, not fully, of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which basically provides online content providers, basically, no liability, just full protection to post and publish whatever they wish to. But long before we get to this point, any pieces of content, for example, that are likely to go viral, or that the tech companies are going to make go viral, should be — there should be some kind of audit kind of process. And these algorithms are thriving, that power all of these systems, thrive on amplification, spectacle and disinformation. And they really need to be reined in and transformed in the interest — in the public interest, in the democratic interest.

But also, to my point earlier, technology companies are not simply about our political lenses into the world, but are also deeply influencing issues of economic justice and social justice. And we have to ensure, because the internet was publicly funded, that all of these tech companies are resting upon publicly funded infrastructure that was based on all of us paying for, that they are publicly accountable. They have to be dedicated to the public interest. And we have to do everything we can, especially at this time when there’s a lot of attention on this issue, to push something that is far more progressive than just, you know, hoping for some good step to be taken here and there when it’s self-serving.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, Chris Hedges, the judge ruling over Julian Assange’s extradition case has just denied him bail. The decision came two days after the judge rejected a U.S. bid for his extradition. The WikiLeaks founder must stay in prison while the U.S. appeals the decision. Your latest article is headlined “The Empire Is Not Done with Julian Assange.” We just have a minute, but talk about the significance of what’s taken place in Britain right now, the judge ruling he will not be extradited to the United States.

CHRIS HEDGES: Because of health risk, because she feels he could commit suicide, there’s that potential, in the barbarity of the prison system.

But on every other point, every other charge, she agreed with the U.S. prosecutors. And that’s ominous, because, in essence, she legitimized, legally, the right of the American government to seize anyone — Julian Assange is not a U.S. citizen; WikiLeaks is not a U.S.-based publication — who publishes U.S. secrets, and carry out extraordinary rendition to haul them back to the United States.

It’s clear that they are going to let him sit in this high-security prison. Remember, he’s being held there on a bond issue, a bail issue. He should have been out a long time ago. He is physically and psychologically in a very precarious state. And I think there’s a lot of people who feel that they’re going to just keep him locked up there, because the U.S. will appeal for months and months, until he disintegrates physically and emotionally.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds, Chris Hedges. What you want to see right now?

CHRIS HEDGES: What’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds — 10 seconds. What you want to see right now for Julian Assange?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, Julian Assange is probably the most important publisher, you know, of the last few decades. He represents everything that I care about in terms of shining a lens into the inner workings of power and exposing the kinds of crimes of power. And the fact that so many people have turned their back on him —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Chris Hedges. We thank you so much for being with us, and Ramesh Srinivasan. I’m Amy Goodman.

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