Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump from using its platform has generated surprisingly little debate among liberals. Of course, as a private company, Twitter can exclude users for almost any reason, meaning its defenestration of @realDonaldTrump is not, per se, a matter of “censorship.” It is, however, an aggressive use of power by a platform that has come to serve as a quasi-official space for political communication, formal and informal.
Bernie Sanders is one political liberal who questions the decision. “Do I feel particularly comfortable that the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter?” he tells Ezra Klein. “I don’t feel comfortable about that.”
Sanders is actually a natural person to raise this objection. He is more hostile than most Democrats to the power of large firms in general, including tech firms. Sanders can easily imagine a firm like Twitter turning its heavy-handed control against somebody like him.
And Sanders has always had a deep vein of support for free-speech norms. He comes out of the Free Speech Movement era of progressive campus activism, when young lefties were the subjects of repression and didn’t want to shut up their opponents. He has criticized efforts by left-wing demonstrators to shut down conservative speakers on campus, saying things like, “I don’t quite understand why anybody thinks it is a good idea to deny somebody else the right to express his or her point of view.”
Twitter originally explained on January 8 that it permanently suspended Trump’s Twitter account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Two days after the Capitol insurrection, this made sense. Several months later, Trump poses little threat of fomenting another armed rebellion against the United States. His authoritarian ambitions have been channeled into normal Republican policies like vote suppression and minority rule via malapportionment.
As time has passed, other, unstated reasons may account for Trump’s continued ban. His tweeting is widely loathed, even by many Republicans. Indeed, the safest ground for criticism by otherwise subservient Republicans has always been to suggest he spend less time tweeting. Trump’s widely criticized tweeting was probably a poor advertisement for Twitter, which — like most public-facing companies — would probably prefer not to be associated with the deranged and frequently racist lies of a known criminal.
But the question has never been whether Trump’s tweets are good. It’s whether people should accept and even celebrate the ceding of this power to a private company. Sanders, finally, is asking the question.