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Too little, too late: The cynical calculus of banning Donald Trump

Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon didn’t have to wait for a coup to cut ties with Trump. All that changed was the cold calculus of the political cost.

Too little, too late: The cynical calculus of banning Donald Trump
[Source photos: tupungato/iStock; Gage Skidmore /Wikimedia Commons]
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Some people are calling them heroes. Other say they’re villains. Longtime critics have become overnight admirers, and vice versa. None of them are right.

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Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Amazon, in deciding to deplatform Donald Trump over last week’s putsch, are neither moral nor immoral. They’re not resistance heroes for cutting bait, just like they weren’t crypto-fascists for the 99.8% of Trump’s presidency during which he weaponized their platforms. They’re amoral corporate entities whose political decisions are determined by everything but politics. To keep or ban Trump has always been a cold-hearted calculus of balancing risk and reward and nothing else. The ransacking of the Capitol tipped the scales.

The Trump circus has been a godsend for Facebook and Twitter. Both are public companies that make the bulk of their money from advertising. The more eyeballs on their platforms, the more advertisers will pay. That’s it. And because Trump has been so controversial, so dramatic, so engaging all of the time, he’s driven more eyeballs and hate-clicks to their platforms than they’d ever dreamed. Trump was good for their business. Twitter lost $5 billion in market value after suspending him.

The math is a little different for Apple and Amazon, but the calculus is similar. Apple’s primary business is in hardware and subscriptions, but it also makes money from payments through its app store. The more companies they can take money from, the better. So while booting the Trump-friendly social network Parler had no impact on Apple’s bottom line, the last thing Apple wants is to set a precedent where it’s playing moderator for any app that might host harmful content. The more open the internet, the more open the app store, the more money Apple makes. The same holds true for Amazon Web Services, which also dumped Parler: Jeff Bezos wants to make money, not court controversy.

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But Trump and his most radicalized supporters finally crossed a line that put Silicon Valley fortunes in jeopardy. Customers were shocked, employees were outraged, advertisers were coming under pressure. Tech companies—including Stripe, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, and Snapchat—launched a preemptive strike to limit insurrectionist activity on their platforms and inoculate themselves from criticism. For some, ideology may have been a contributing factor. But the timing speaks volumes. Why now, instead of after Charlottesville or “stand back and stand by“?

We can set aside the internal pressure from progressive employees, who have been agitating inside Twitter and Facebook for years to take a harder line against Trump. When push came to shove, few actually quit their high-paying jobs as a matter of principle. The risk of users deleting either app is also overstated. Most people who care enough about politics to feel strongly about Trump aren’t looking to remove themselves from where the action is. Twitter and Facebook provide an outlet for millions of people who want to feel connected, want to feel included, want to feel heard. They’re not giving that up so easily.

There’s a simpler explanation: Donald Trump had only a few days left in office, his power was waning, and his supporters had just attempted to overthrow the federal government. For platforms and advertisers who only care about what they can get away with, it was a bit like Justice Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: they knew it when they saw it. Tech executives acted accordingly.

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Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist.