Trump, social media and “Orwellian” bullshit

After a relentless and unbroken 40-year fight to hand informational control and power over to a small number of corporate actors, the political right is now wetting their collective pants over Trump being banned by a privately-owned company.

by Christian Christensen

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Donald Trump being banned from a cross-section of social media and digital platforms has generated outrage from right-wingers in the United States and Europe, with claims that these decisions are tantamount to censorship, a violation of Trump’s free-speech rights and blatant political targeting on the part of companies described as “leftist.” In addition, the actions of Twitter, Facebook, Google and others have led the same group of conservatives to lament the unfettered power of these multi-billion dollar companies and the “Orwellian” tactics they are accused of employing.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To me, however, we really need to start by cutting through what can only be described as the dishonest, cynical and utterly decontextualized bullshit at the heart of the right-wing criticism of the Trump ban.

Bluntly, if there’s anything “Orwellian” about all of this — and it is clear that many citing Orwell’s “1984” have either not read or don’t understand the book — it is that the political right in the United States and Europe are re-framing as “leftist” and “anti-democratic” the for-profit, privately controlled “free market of ideas” they have religiously and relentlessly pushed for decades.

When I was young, I moved from a United States about to enter the Reagan era to a United Kingdom about to enter the Thatcher era. For media, Reaganism-Thatcherism (which spilled over into other parts of Europe) was marked by a belief in the value of de-regulation/re-regulation that favored large, powerful corporate actors. In the US, policies meant to protect against excessive concentration of corporate media ownership were stripped, allowing a limited number of market giants to tighten their grip on the information infrastructure. In the United Kingdom and Europe, we saw the increasing commercialization of media markets and commodification of audiences, while public service broadcasting found itself under attack as statist “market distortion.”

The ideological zeitgeist of the Reagan-Thatcher era was that the privately owned corporate sector was better qualified and better structured to have control over the flow of news and information in society. This shift was framed as more than just an issue of policy, it was framed as an issue of morality: to empower the human spirit by allowing it to break free of the repressive shackles of state control, reveling in the natural democracy and common sense of consumer choice. This ethos morphed into economic religion, solidified by the collapse of the Soviet Union which was pitched as evidence that the free market had “won” the moral war.

So, after a relentless and unbroken 40-year fight to hand informational control and power over to a small number of corporate actors, the political right is now wetting their collective pants over Trump being banned by a privately-owned company. A company that the right has been telling us should be trusted — free from Nanny State intrusion — to make precisely such a decision. As if that hypocrisy wasn’t enough, Trump’s ban was clearly rooted in his violation of the terms of service to which he agreed when he got his Twitter account. So, apparently, another conservative moral mantra –“personal responsibility” — has also been conveniently forgotten in this whirlpool of “Orwellian” bullshit.

What is clear is that the “leftist social media” myth has now merged with the traditional “leftist mainstream media” myth to form an overarching “leftist media ecosystem” myth. With this meta-myth, all media criticism can be waived off as ideologically driven. And, in true Orwellian fashion, this right-wing critique positions multi-billion dollar corporate owners as, of all things, leftist. The problem with this argument, of course, is that Twitter has been a gold mine for Trump…and Trump a gold mine for Twitter. His ban came only days before he leaves office, and only after the violent events in Washington. And, an overwhelming portion of Facebook and YouTube traffic is driven by right-wing content. A good argument can also be made that the current power of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the information ecology is directly linked to the historical re-regulation, commercialization and subsequent entertainment/conflict orientation of news and information in Europe and the US.

Who were the people warning us for decades about the excessive power of centralized corporate control over media and information? About the threats of this centralized control to democracy? “Libertarian” Trumpites now complaining so vociferously? Reagan Republicans? European Conservatives? No. It was academics and the political left, saying that the excessive power of news organizations such as Fox News, CNN and the New York Times, and the excessive power of social media platforms, are dangerous.

And what was the standard reaction of the political right when researchers and media reformers expressed basic concern over the concentration of power in our informational ecosystem? That we were naive, free market-hating Marxists with no grasp of how things work “in the real world.” That we were scared that our worldview would be thrashed in the “marketplace of ideas.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the real world.

The corporations the right fed through the de-regulation of media markets, the enabling of increased concentration of corporate ownership, generous corporate tax breaks and actively marginalizing and attacking the few remaining non-commercial alternatives (like public service broadcasting) were re-framed, overnight, from monuments to Capitalism to oppressors. The history of the political right in their creation was erased and revised, with conservatives re-written in the updated version as the innocent victims of corporate media power. Run over by multi-billion dollar corporations operating in the service of “Marxism.”

Orwell couldn’t have written it any better.

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen 

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