After the US Capitol building was stormed by a violent mob, Twitter permanently banned Donald J. Trump from it’s platform on January 8th, 2021. A permanent Facebook suspension soon followed. Those who had opposed Trump’s neo-fascist regime applauded Silicon Valley for finally exercising power. The ban brought relief. And for many, the main critical response was only that these suspensions hadn’t come soon enough. While this is understandable in the specific case of Trump, should the Left not be concerned that platform censorship could perhaps, one day, also come to them?
With Biden in office and the immediate threat of a growing fascist movement lessened, the Left is returning to its old fight against the neoliberal center. Lest we forget that this is where many big platforms live, it’s critical that we take this moment to interrogate certain positions that have emerged within the Left in recent years, particularly its relationship to “platform entitlement”: 1. an illusion that, by virtue of one’s (morally just) politics, one has an inalienable right to access big platforms and post there freely; and 2. that it is one’s duty to help these platforms enforce the rules.
But this logic mistakes the role of digital platforms for the 4th column (media checking governance) rather than a space of governance itself. It also assumes one’s perpetual alignment with the “editorial board.” Recently, members in our community were made invisible—or “shadowbanned”—on Instagram, their primary source of communication with the public. Meanwhile, legacy cultural institutions, concerned with cancel-proofing their public reception, are programming their own physical platforms (once havens for the creative experimentation of a cultural avant-garde) with big-stack digital platform compliance in mind. Yet on large social media platforms (in contrast to individual museums) deplatforming occurs arbitrarily, through a combination of black box algorithms and underpaid laborers in developing nations; a cloud of fuzzy rules that are easily exploited to silence those on the Right and Left alike. And unlike the deplatforming of Trump, these smaller-user takedowns and shadowbans are not accompanied by press releases and statements from the CEO.
In turn, the only “safe” content is that which avoids politics altogether—or is straightforwardly legible as reinforcing the center party line. In result, clearnet platforms are hardly a viable public “commons.” Maybe we’re to blame for ever thinking they were. Yet now artists and activists who trusted in the platform (and even relied on it for their livelihoods) are at risk of being disconnected. Meanwhile, the dark forest communities developing on Discord, etc. have a waning connection to each other and to the broader public sphere.
Major social media platforms are trending towards depoliticizing user content, or at least restricting communication that transgresses the algorithmically-approved, #buildbackbetter center-lib codes. How to respond to this change is both a technological and ideological question. Resilient platforms free from censorship must be nurtured and created, methods of evading algorithmic suppression must be discovered and shared, and the left’s love affair with deplatforming and “terms of service”—must be questioned and reconsidered. And it must all happen while developing new tactics of battling the expansion of right wing propaganda.
By talking to both those with firsthand experience being banned on social media as well as the new platform builders, “Shadowlands” will consider the current state of online speech and imagine possibilities for a censorship-resistant public commons in the future.