On Jan. 8, Twitter announced its permanent suspension of President Donald Trump. Twitter, a massive social media platform with around 68 million monthly users in the US alone, arguably played a large role in Trump’s election and his ability to reach out to voters directly. It was also an avenue through which Trump could circumnavigate what he viewed as unfair media portrayal of his presidency. Facebook also made a similar decision to indefinitely suspend Trump from using its platform. Many are quick to justify the bans made by social media giants on the grounds that they are private companies. However, the ban on Trump is emblematic of larger constitutional and civic issues and is not simply an example of private companies exercising their rights.
The reality for many Americans is that social media platforms like Twitter have become the primary places to which they go to find news and partake in political discourse. Social media have taken a massive role in politics by allowing candidates and public policy makers to directly interact with their constituents, changing the nature of our democracy. Given the widespread usage of these platforms and the direct effect they have on electoral outcomes, one could make the case that social media are the new public forum.
Like the town square, Twitter and Facebook provide a space in which issues can be debated and grievances redressed. In the town square, unlike the current case with social media platforms, the government cannot limit any speech that is otherwise protected under the First Amendment. However, this is not the case for the modern-day civic center. Instead, a host of unelected bureaucrats, who are in no way accountable to the public, get to dictate the terms of acceptable speech. The sole fact that a sitting president was banned from what essentially amounts to our public forum should itself be a cause for concern. Should tech companies have the right to restrict the public’s access to direct communication from their elected leaders?
While Republicans have long held to their defense of the rights of private companies to make their own decisions regarding who is allowed to use their service, the unprecedented scope and influence of these companies on public discourse has led to a re-evaluation of these assumptions. Indeed, many legislators on both sides of the political spectrum have called for anti-trust laws to break up big tech companies.
While there are no clear-cut solutions to protecting the public sphere in the digital era, the disproportionate influence these companies possess cannot be ignored.