As someone who has traditionally valued online discussion, I’ve long believed that de-platforming is something of an extreme measure. However, as multiple social media platforms have banned Donald Trump for inciting further violence akin to the attempted coup on the United States capitol, one thing that’s clear to me is how de-platforming is not about robbing someone of their freedom of expression. Rather, when used properly, it’s about protecting those who would wish to engage in honest discourse from those who seek to use the facade of debate and social interaction as a Trojan horse to further causes that seek to oppress and diminish others.
In far too many cases, “change my mind” ends up simply being a smokescreen. It’s become a running joke. Often, those who throw such statements out are not actually open to ideas but are performing images of strength and indignation in the presence of those who are potentially vulnerable to their posturing. The use of bots to spread disinformation and make an outlandishly dangerous opinion have greater support than is actually there only contributes to this weaponizing of public discourse. To leave social media open to such actors is to invite them to continue to bamboozle people through demagoguery.
I do have concerns when it comes to de-platforming. I fear is that if it’s taken as too default an action, then it can become incredibly easy to label anyone with whom you disagree as “arguing in bad faith” without it necessarily being the case. One of my core beliefs is that people grow at different rates. While there are those who never let go of their hatred, anger, and/or ignorance, there are also those who need the right person or people to communicate with them, and to encourage a level of change that doesn’t meet self-resistance or induce a backlash. I worry that people may be so perpetually drained both mentally and emotionally that they push anyone and everyone into the “bad-faith” category to spare themselves both the pain of having to engage a potentially disingenuous person on the other side and the stress of constantly trying to discern whose minds can be changed and who are lost causes.
But while I encourage people to give others the benefit of the doubt initially, once someone has revealed themselves to be a snake, you don’t let them crawl back into your nest. It might seem like a game without stakes, but it has become painfully clear that there are deadly consequences: COVID-19 is ravaging the world and especially the United States at an unprecedented level that can only get worse, and we just had a mob try to take over the US federal government in order to re-install their hate-filled savior figure. How many lives could have been saved if we had not let Trump and those like him keep their online megaphones for so long?
If anything, the skill that I think needs to be developed most robustly for human beings going forward is being able to discern between those who come to the table actually open to an exchange of ideas and those who are simply pretending to be. In the meantime, while freedom of speech is an inherent right of all Americans, there should be consequences for those who seek to abuse it—especially for the leaders who play games with lives.
Today is January 20, 2021, and a new US president is being sworn into office. I hope that the lessons of these past four years are not in vain.