After years of pressure from outside and inside the company, Facebook has (for the time being) deplatformed wannabe fascist Donald Trump.
This comes after years of frustration with Facebook’s refusal to police Trump’s most incendiary rhetoric. In June of last year, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest their company’s refusal to label Trump’s lies the way that Twitter had decided to do. “Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric,” Zuckerberg said in a post to his Facebook page in response. “But I’m responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression.”
Yet those notions of “free expression” are suddenly moot. What changed? Well, the terrorist siege of the Capitol was clearly a factor, but there was likely an even bigger one: Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley is suddenly on the wrong side of history.
No one has been more aggressive in attacking “Big Tech” and its supposed “censorship” of conservative voices than Hawley.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has emerged as a surprising Republican voice on those issues. The youngest working lawmaker in the Senate, Hawley has taken a lead on the ongoing investigations into Facebook, joining with Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in February for a letter probing the company’s teen data collection practices, and penning legislation with Democrats that would extend more rigorous privacy protections for children. He’s also been outspoken in calling for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, often seen as the central legal protection for online platforms.
Facebook may not like the scrutiny on its noxious data-collection policies, but that’s a bipartisan concern. The bigger danger was the last sentence above—Hawley’s advocacy for stripping social media companies of their Section 230 protections.
As you might remember, Section 230 was the real reason that Trump vetoed the Pentagon/national security budget bill, the only veto to be overridden by Congress during his single term in office. It protects online platforms from legal liability of those writing on that platform. It’s literally the reason Daily Kos allows its community to exist and thrive. Without it, Facebook and Daily Kos and every other site with community generated content (including comments!) would be legally liable for everything posted on that site or platform.
Section 230 is existential to Daily Kos, and it’s extra existential to Facebook. So conservatives have tried to use it as a cudgel to block the big social media companies from monitoring and limiting certain content—like the false bullshit and incendiary stuff that conservatives love to post.
Now the notion that Facebook is anti-conservative is laughable, as can be seen by the platform’s most shared content on January 5:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 10 are all conservative voices. And I’m not cherry-picking, this Twitter account lists Facebook’s top 10 links every single day. The list is always dominated by politically conservative voices. In fact, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire blatantly breaks Facebook’s rules in promoting his material, yet Facebook has been too afraid to act, lest it give Hawley further ammunition for his anti-Section 230 crusade.
Last week, Popular Information exposed how The Daily Wire has gained unprecedented distribution on Facebook through its relationship with Mad World News. Five large Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News expanded The Daily Wire’s audience by millions through the coordinated posting of dozens of links from The Daily Wire each day.
Facebook previously said it had looked into the matter, found no evidence of a violation, and could not prove a financial relationship. The company now admits the two publishers are working together.
After denying what everyone knew to be obvious, Facebook finally admitted that Daily Wire was breaking its rules. And the response? “We are also warning Daily Wire and will demote them if we see this behavior continue.” Oh no. A warning. Click on that link and see how blatant Shapiro’s conduct has been. But Facebook did nothing.
And similarly, Facebook refused to act on Trump, while its CEO Mark Zuckerberg regularly dined at the White House.
Yet here we are today, with Facebook issuing perhaps the most aggressive deplatforming of the major social media outlets, calling the suspension “indefinite.” By all indications, it’ll last through the rest of Trump’s presidency. And if no one can control Trump now, imagine when he’s a private citizen again? He’ll be even worse, completely subsumed by QAnon conspiracy theories with little checks on his ability to vomit that crap on Twitter and Facebook. Without the protections of his office, there’ll be even less hesitation for those platforms to keep him around. Trump’s ability to do damage on Parler will be limited.
But given Facebook’s fear of riling up conservative critics, wouldn’t deplatforming Trump, even temporarily, be problematic? Well, that’s where Josh Hawley comes into play.
1. Republicans lost the Senate
Hawley’s ability to call for hearings and use the Senate majority as a platform for his anti-Facebook crusade is obviously degraded. Democrats will want to probe into Facebook for anti-trust and privacy violation issues, but there’s less appetite for an ideological effort to overturn Section 230. And while some Democrats have made noise about Section 230, they have far bigger priorities to deal with, and they will be more amenable to arguments against messing with it (or at least, protecting sites like this one with any changes).
2. No one can pretend Trump’s Q-flavored rhetoric and supporters aren’t dangerous
Republicans and other Trump defenders claimed that no one took Trump literally, that it was all figurative! Turns out, the deplorables were absolutely taking his rhetoric literally. “Stand back and stand by” was literally a call to be ready for action.
And people died as our own Capitol was taken over by terrorists, putting Congress and the vice president in grave mortal danger.
3. And now, Josh Hawley is on the wrong side of history
I’ll have more to say on this in the coming days, but Wednesday’s siege of the Capitol changed everything.
On Tuesday, Republicans were bought into the Trump wing of the Republican Party, doing their damndest to cater to the crazy deplorables. We saw this in the challenges to the electoral votes of Arizona, and the planned challenges to other states. Rudy Giuliani was even pressuring its allies in the Senate to challenge up to 10 states to gum up the works! Hawley and Cruz and others were tripping over themselves to prove the most Trumpy, looking toward the 2024 presidential election (as if Trump would bless anyone not named “Trump” as his successor).
Then the siege happened, and everything has changed. Those gallows and zip ties weren’t just for Democrats. In fact, they seemed even more directed at Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence himself, traitors in the eyes of the deplorables. There was real fear in the statements put out by Republicans in the aftermath of the attack, doing little to tamp down on Democratic calls for 25th Amendment or impeachment solutions. In fact, some of them seemed to tacitly approve of them.
When the dust cleared, Republican appetite for more challenges evaporated, yet there was one a-hole still pushing them—Josh Hawley, the same guy who had cheered on the terrorists moments before their attack began. He’s steadfastly refused to distance himself from the mob. He still sees them as his allies and pals and best path toward the 2024 nomination. He has no plans to give that up.
Problem is, a big chunk of his party sees the deplorables as a problem—a problem electorally (they will further repel suburban voters and motivate core Democratic constituencies), and a personal safety problem. They created this monster, and it’s clear many Republicans have little appetite to keep feeding it.
So you can see Hawley’s problem, as he refuses to back off. Without even talking about the coming Republican civil war, it’s clear that Hawley’s personal brand is now far less daunting and scary than it was a mere two days ago. It’s as if Reps. Louie Gohmert or Jim Jordan were your chief nemesis. You can laugh them off as ideological cranks, once elevated by Trump, but now pushed back to back-bencher status.
That’s not to say that Hawley won’t be a real threat moving forward, but he’s now marked as a deplorable at a time that even Republicans want to distance themselves from Trump and his deplorables. He’s lost credibility. And with that loss of credibility, he’s a lot less scary to Facebook. So much so, that it’s easy for them to say “that content is incendiary” and they ban it, not worried that Hawley can muster the political capital to do anything about it.