Social Media Bans & Soft Power

Before I get into the meat of this blog post, I have to start with a few quick thoughts/disclaimers. First, what happened at the Capitol on January 6th was one of the most unpatriotic, abhorrent, depressing domestic political events that I’ve witnessed in my 31 years on this planet. It was an absolute disgrace and all of those rioters who assaulted the seat of our federal government should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I will be writing more in depth about this failed insurrection later this week, as I want to wait for as much information as possible before committing my (many) thoughts to paper (or whatever the Internet equivalent is).

The main purpose of this post is to discuss one of the reactions to the events of the 6th, namely the concurrent banning of President Donald Trump from all social media platforms, as well as the deplatforming of Parler, a Twitter competitor favored by some Trump supporters and right-wing activists. Many have written about this already, but here’s my two cents as someone who is genuinely struggling with how to address this in a way that is consistent with my personal political and ideological framework. I support the right of private companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook to freely associate with whomever they please. As a free marketeer and a laissez-faire capitalist, I do not wish to see government regulation in most aspects of private commerce; I believe that the free association rights of individuals and businesses are sacrosanct, whether it involves a small-time religious baker in Colorado or a massive Silicon Valley conglomerate. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m not disturbed by the seemingly coordinated deplatforming based on political speech that we’re seeing now. I’m most concerned by the appearance of coordination among supposedly neutral platforms who compete with one another, whether that coordination was actual cartel-like behavior or if it reflects a high level of ideological groupthink. Both of those options are very disturbing to me when it comes to my support for an absolutist position regarding free speech. Given the dissonance between my two preferred classical liberal positions on free association and speech in this instance, I am not sure what the right approach is. All I can say for certain is that it is a nuanced issue that merits deep consideration and a society-wide debate over our cultural values. Most of these positions and issues have been raised elsewhere, so I do not intend to dive too deeply into that heavily populated pool. However, there is one specific aspect of this issue that I have not seen addressed yet, so I wanted to write a bit more about it: the unforeseen impact of these corporate actions on the soft power of the American government.

Soft power is an important concept in international relations theory that was popularized by the Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye in the 1980s. According to Nye’s book, helpfully titled Soft Power, “soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others,”[1] and it “uses a different type of currency (not force, not money) to engender cooperation — an attraction to shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values.”[2] A classic example of the soft power of the United States is Hollywood; our films and television programs are watched around the world and showcase American values and the American way of life. Even something as seemingly minor as a scene in a typical American supermarket could be a powerful example: if someone from behind the Iron Curtain, struggling with food insecurity and scarcity, saw a fully stocked US supermarket with myriad choices of products, it necessarily counteracts some of the propaganda of the regime he is living under. He may think about how those ‘dirty capitalist Americans’ that his government told him so much about have such extensive choice and access to the basics of life, as well as why his government isn’t able to provide that to their own citizens. That simple scene may not only help counteract propaganda, but also instill a desire to learn more about the ideas which support our level of freedom and consumption, pushing our values out to a wider world.

In the current day and age, social media and Big Tech companies serve that same purpose. They can be seen as exemplars of American entrepreneurialism and innovation, as well as spreaders of our cultural values around the world. American control of these platforms provides us with the ability to promote our values with respect to tolerance of a wide variety of perspectives and personalities. Their openness and content moderation choices can bolster the idea of America as a bastion of free speech, liberty, tolerance of minority views, and acceptance of difference; they can also undermine those very values which our society was founded on and holds so dear. As of now, the vast majority of online speech and association occurs on American-operated Internet platforms, from social media titans like Facebook and Twitter to search engines and advertising companies like Google to cloud providers like Amazon Web Services. I’m deeply concerned that the actions of those companies in the past few days have irreparably harmed our nation’s ability to project soft power through our classically liberal cultural values. Let me explain.

By acting in a coordinated fashion (whether planned or organic) to ban the speech of the sitting President of the United States — the most powerful man on Earth — while allowing similarly abhorrent speech from other influential accounts (including those of authoritarian governments like Iran and China), these platforms have shown themselves to be myopically focused on US domestic politics from a purely partisan perspective. Not only does this reduce their legitimacy in the eyes of Americans who may dissent with the culturally dominant progressive orthodoxy, it utterly demolishes any high ground of independence that these companies could claim to the rest of the world. Instead of showcasing the fact that our speech culture privileges free expression over personal feelings of offense or government decree, these platforms have shown conclusively that they care more about plaudits from their political allies (the vast majority of tech employee political spending goes to Democrats) than they do about promoting traditionally American values. Why should a foreign population rely on the fickle cultural whims of elite American progressives to govern their online speech and conduct?

As it turns out, they don’t need to. There is a budding movement — which now has far more ammunition for its cause — for nations and blocs as disparate as India, China, Israel, and the European Union to create, and sometimes mandate, their own competing tech platforms which fit better with local cultural and speech norms. Some calls for just that can be seen in the tweets below, from two influential thinkers on technology and foreign affairs.

American control of much of the global tech industry is seriously threatened by the actions of these platforms since January 6th; any fragmentation of the sector would necessarily reduce American influence given our currently dominant position. A more distributed and closed off global Internet drastically hampers our ability to transmit American cultural values abroad, as well as kneecapping our soft power. In a century when American hegemony is already going to be threatened by a rising totalitarian China and its revanchist geopolitical aims, this is the opposite of what we need. Long after President Trump has vanished from the political scene, these actions will be remembered for the damage they caused our country in the realm of soft power. Regardless of what you may think about the wisdom or prudence of banning the President and deplatforming an app like Parler (something I do not use and never intend to), these long-term considerations are worth thinking about. It is a shame that these massive tech platforms have thrown away a major asset for American foreign influence over a short-term domestic political concern. I fear that we will be feeling the effects of this decision for decades to come.

[1] Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), 5.

[2] Nye, Soft Power, 7.

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