BROOKE GLADSTONEThis is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELDAnd I'm Bob Garfield.
PARANOIA AGENTLook, I mean, our values are under assault every single day. Under a secular, atheist, leftist Marxist movement. Within our government, within our culture, within higher education. [END CLIP]
ALEX JONESThe new world order, I guess, just read that God is going to destroy the earth next time by fire. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELDSuch is the rhetorical currency in the online free marketplace of paranoia. It flourished digitally on Zello and of course, on Facebook, YouTube, Parler, 8Chan and Gab long before last Wednesday when it materialized in flesh and blood. The Proud Boys, QAnon, MAGA, Oath Keepers, 3 Percenters, they all were there representing their particular tribes of reactionary grievance, smashing and beating and terrorizing like some perverse United Way of right wing extremism. But if incitement falls in the forest and almost nobody can hear it, can it trigger insurrection? The whole world of big tech this week began seriously, systematically and almost universally answering that question, Casey Newton writes about the intersection of tech and democracy for Platformer. Before this week's deplatforming of the president, he says, there was Alex Jones, who, until a year and a half ago, was a major purveyor of lies and disinformation and now is all but gone. I asked Casey what happened.
CASEY NEWTONMajor providers of services, including Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, kicked Alex Jones off the platform and he lost a big megaphone. And it's not just that he lost access to the followers that he had. He lost the ability to easily recruit new ones. And he is among the best evidence that we have that deplatforming can work in removing bad actors from the public sphere.
BOB GARFIELDOK, till now, because he's president of the United States and by definition newsworthy, Donald Trump has faced only incremental sanctions by the platforms and even those were fairly late in coming, but tell me what they were.
CASEY NEWTONIn the run up to him actually being removed from the platforms, Facebook and Twitter began putting labels on his posts saying, for example, no, the election had not been stolen and Joe Biden really did win it. Before that, they placed labels on tweets that they believed might incite violence, such as during last summer's protests for racial justice. They had a big conflict over what to do when the president tweeted, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Ultimately, Twitter prevented that post from being shared. And I think the hope was that by taking some of these lesser measures, they might try to encourage the president to improve his behavior. But as we saw, that did not work.
BOB GARFIELDNo. But then came the siege on the Capitol and the platforms sprang into action. How broad has been his platforming over the last ten days?
CASEY NEWTONIt's quite remarkable. Not only have we seen Facebook and Twitter remove the president, but he has lost, for example, the ability to sell merchandise through the store that he ran through a company called Shopify. He is no longer able to process payments through a company called Stripe. He's even lost access to some of the email tools that he used to reach people for fundraising.
BOB GARFIELDNow, once he was kicked off of Twitter permanently just to choose one platform, the obvious next step would have been for him to move to the reactionary friendly Twitter clone called Parler. Then what happened?
CASEY NEWTONParler wound up losing its spot in the Google App Store in the Apple App Store, and then in a very unusual move, Amazon Web Services, which hosted all of the content on Parler, stopped providing service, which means that stuff essentially can no longer be uploaded to Parler. And so as we're recording this now, Parler's fate is very much uncertain.
BOB GARFIELDAnd here we learned that the idea of deplatforming isn't just something that comes from one supreme tech giant in one fell swoop, but it's kind of hierarchical. There is something called the content moderation stack. What is it?
CASEY NEWTONWell, you can just sort of visualize all of the services that are required to put something on the Internet or into an app as a stack. Each layer of it enables the layer below it. So at the very top of it, you would have telecom, which enables the 5G cell signal that transmits the Internet through the air and closer to the bottom, you have something like Facebook or Twitter, which is a user facing platform that has more specific rules around what people can and can't do.
BOB GARFIELDAnd in the middle, things like ISPs, domain registrars, cloud services and so forth.
CASEY NEWTONThat's right. We might not even be aware that these services exist, but as we have seen over the past few days, they can be chokepoints in some of these extreme cases.
BOB GARFIELDWhich raises questions of, you know, whether we as customers voted to give them that power.
CASEY NEWTONRight. And for the most part, they do not want to exercise this power. Businesses want to have the maximum number of customers, and so removing customers is typically something that they do as a last resort. But when questions of politics are involved, that does get much trickier and it places executives into an extremely uncomfortable position. You know, we should say that there are examples at every level of the stack where some ESP or some telecoms somewhere has intervened to remove something bad from the platform. So this is not entirely novel. What is pretty novel, though, is to see everyone acting around the same time to take the same action. A lot of the debate that we've been having over the past week is: is this an extremely unusual one off event based on this extraordinary event of an attempted coup in our country? Or is this going to be a new normal where platforms begin doing this sort of thing all the time out of political pressure? I believe it's probably going to look more like the former unless we start seeing a lot more political violence in this country.
BOB GARFIELDFor years, Republicans have been accusing big tech of being partisan enemies. I'd say that argument is like criticizing a cancer surgeon for only cutting out the tumor and leaving the surrounding healthy tissue alone. But it does put a lot of control of the public sphere in the hands of tech giants who already unequivocally have too much power. So what is to be done about this?
CASEY NEWTONIn many ways, it is the question of our age. How do we hold to account these corporations? We have a system of government in this country that could pass regulations at any time. It's been investigating these companies in various ways. It's hauled the CEOs before the cameras to yell at them in public. But so far they haven't taken any action. In the absence of action by those institutions, tech companies just embrace their own roles as institutions. And that's put a lot of attention on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, appropriately I think, but we know how to get out of this mess, and its the Congress that is going to have to act.
BOB GARFIELDThank you very much.
CASEY NEWTONThanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELDCasey Newton writes Platformer, a publication about big tech and democracy.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.