Trump’s summit shows he needs the tech giants as much as they need him

Guardian Web |

Yesterday, Donald Trump convened a summit at the White House, its remit: “a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment”. But of course it was Trump. It was never going to be a dry, sober policy event.

Joining him was a constellation of people from the world of the “alt-right”, alternative media and conspiracy theorising.

This is a community that, born on the internet, is now feeling the squeeze from social-media companies

Step into this world, and there is a very different internet waiting to be found. It’s one where members of the buzzing subreddit The_Donald call Trump “daddy” or GEOTUS – God Emperor of the United States. One that sees Hillary Clinton at the heart of a ring of satanic abusers. One that, in lots of different ways, is trying to throw off the influences of mainstream media, academic experts and the political establishment as so many yokes around the neck of the American people. Together, they are an angry, vibrant, technically skilled political base that has been dismissed as cranks and loons by every almost single mainstream politician, to their cost. The one exception is Trump.

He has given them interviews, feted them, and now invited them to the White House. But this is a strange, strained moment. They’ve been pulled into the centre of American political culture just as they’ve begun to be pushed out of the mainstream venues of online life. This is also a community that, born on the internet, only made possible through social media, is now feeling the squeeze from social-media companies. Many of their most prominent voices have been thrown off Twitter and Facebook, or had their revenues cut by YouTube. The_Donald itself has just been placed under “quarantine” by Reddit, where you have to click through warning pages to reach it. Even the algorithms, they complain, have been tweaked to stop their message being visible.

This kind of de-platforming has, in many cases, really hurt. The world of “alt-tech” that these people have been exiled to has nothing like the eyeballs and reach of the tech giants. After YouTube and Facebook banned Alex Jones for alleged hate speech, the New York Times reported that his audience had fallen by nearly half. The summit was all about framing these removals as censorship, driven by the perceived liberal bias of the sunny, Californian, deep-blue world of big tech. A central right, they claim, is being undermined: free speech.

This is really a primal struggle for control of what the internet will look like. For “free speech” is now in direct conflict with another idea: online harm. The past decade has seen charities, political figures and researchers such as me point out that certain kinds of content on social media can be incredibly damaging – from anti-vaxx to hate speech and harassment. The basic freedom to say things online is now tangled up with the right to freedom from the harms that might come from it. This is a cultural war, and the content policies of the tech giants are absolutely at the heart of it.

Trump will push the tech giants, but he also needs them. He has no other way of bypassing the mainstream media or galvanising his support base. And whatever their liberal instincts, the tech giants also need him. They are companies, and fantastically profitable ones. The looming threats of taxation and regulation mean they will continue to carefully walk a tightrope between expression and harm. It’s rarely good business to directly take on an incumbent president.

Then there’s also the issue for those such as me, and perhaps you, who have long worried that the tech giants cause harm precisely because they are not regulated. That they are over-mighty, out of control and shouldn’t be making world-changing decisions about who can or can’t be part of the public debate. But now, just as they begin to act on the many problems of online life, it is an entirely different kind of regulation – Trump’s regulation – that might ruin it all.

This is an early skirmish in what is going to be a protracted, bruising, difficult struggle about the basic principles to govern online life. Expect no swift conclusions and many messy compromises.

Carl Miller is the author of The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab

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