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Is speech really free?

By Mariann Hardey, April 2021

The January 2021 ‘Capitol Hill coup’ resulted in the permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. But it’s not just on Twitter that the ex-president has been silenced. Following the close review of content from many of Donald Trump’s social media accounts across different channels, and the context around them, a number of platforms have permanently suspended the previous president’s accounts due to the risk of further incitement, violence, misinformation and disinformation.

In less time than it takes to write a single tweet, film a TikTok video or send a “what’s-up?” on WhatsApp, Trump was de-platformed across social media.

Our ability to be social across social media has helped bridge all kinds of separations and, most recently, became a force for good against loneliness in the midst of the global pandemic. Reaching for each other through the screen feels ‘normal’: it’s somewhere we unwittingly spend more time, revealing more about our lives across multiple small screens. So intense is our gaze, the drama surrounding Trump’s de-platforming further amplifies our reliance, our needs, our distractions, and how our views are heightened through social media.

Social media most often gives prominence to trends ranked by the loudest or most popular topics – for Trump it was typical for his opinion to be communicated in capital letters. This sense of content hierarchy provokes our curiosity in real-time events, emphasised by the social condition of ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out), and rarely brings a fear of proper repercussions for those who shout the loudest. What I find interesting are the reactive qualities of social media, the sense of needing to wade into the loudest trends and to secure our own proof of ‘being there’ in the moment.

Can free speech be costly?

Trump has repeatedly pushed the Orwellian properties of the ‘Big Tech’, who he claims are watching his every move and – to take Trump’s narrative – who have it in for him. The ex-president also points to the Big Tech’s Marxist agenda to both offer a critique of the corporate tech organisations he cannot control and socialist politics. The trending of #nineteeneightyfour across social media following the Capitol Hill coup echoes Orwell’s own concerns about the sense of being watched, how we might react, and what Big Brother might do to us. For Trump, de-platforming reflected a loss of power: his power to communicate to his followers and his power of ownership over his own content.

There are two reasons why we feel unsettled about current social media platform conditions. The first, obviously, is our urgency to connect and feel connected during a period of significant change, fear and uncertainty, and a sense of feeling powerless to control our immediate social or professional conditions. Where even ‘normal’ is modified as ‘new’, what remains the same is Big Tech’s reliance on our content: they do not want such content to undermine the integrity of their business models. A key reason why Trump was de-platformed was that he became too much of a risk to the existing commercial operation.

Second is a mystification about content ownership and publication rights. In part, Trump’s explosion at Big Tech was railing against what he perceived as unjust treatment against his content and his right to publish that content freely. Here’s the rub: while Trump, like us, perceives that he owns his content, he cannot fully control where and how it is used.

We are using platforms provided by private enterprises who are concerned with profit, and each has their own terms of service. At the risk of getting into complex copyright and personal data law to highlight the lack of understanding around accountability and our personal trade-off in using social media for ‘free’, put simply, nothing, as Trump has found, is free.

While locked down, it is easy to feel a sense of injustice where our conversations, as a form of data, provoke reactions, enable the monetisation of corporate social media platforms and present new concerns about Big Brother surveillance. When it comes to what sociologist Dave Beer calls ‘dataveillance’, user expectations about social media are counterbalanced by how transparent the Big Tech companies have been in managing data privacy, protection, and integrity against their profits.

To read more about Dr Hardey, who is also part of the Directorate for the Advanced Research Computing group at the University and Durham University Principle Investigator for Creative Fuse North East.

You can find out more information in Dr Hardey’s book The Culture of Women in Tech: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, available from Emerald, at