The debate on deplatforming, the act of banning or canceling by social media platform policy or public boycott, has recently reached new heights. Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, made destructive and antisemitic comments on multiple social media platforms leading to widespread dismissal of his platform and views. The same month, free speech advocate and Tesla CEO Elon Musk acquired Twitter in a $44 billion deal. Two of the public’s foremost free expression advocates have escalated the debate to the mainstream. Both have an ideological interest in a near-total lack of censorship: Ye as an artist and Musk as a public figure. In Ye’s loss of professional partners and Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, both demonstrate resistance to deplatforming culture.
I’m in between on deplatforming because while social media’s reach is potentially dangerous, Twitter is not the entity I want to decide what that danger entails. Tweets have become public canon, and a system where world leaders are censored at a business’s discretion is a slippery slope. Similarly, if Twitter is able to ban at will, then the company is able to decide what opinions are allowed to enter the public’s eyes. Even with terms and conditions carefully specifying that only hateful language will be taken down, who is to decide where that line is to be drawn? In order to solve the issue of cancellation, we need to reevaluate our tendencies to prefer deletion over convincing rebuttal.
Institutions have recently been centered in the deplatforming debate, as questions on renaming buildings arise. Emory is no exception. In Jan. 2020, The Emory Wheel reported on President Gregory Fenves’ decision to decline “to take action on renaming the Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.” The name came under fire after Schwartz funded a controversial speech made by conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald. In the speech, Mac Donald made reprehensible comments blaming survivors for sexual assaults, leading to a wave of pushback from Emory University students. In response to Mac Donald’s comments, the 54th Student Government Association (SGA) legislature passed a resolution calling on the University to rename the Schwartz Center.
In retrospect, such actions against Schwartz were unwarranted. His contribution to Mac Donald’s speech was purely in the hope of diversifying speaker opinions on campus, far from an endorsement of her sentiments. I believe that the movement to deplatform Schwartz came from a place of attempted retribution, a belief that the community was wronged and that someone needed to be held accountable. Renaming the Schwartz Center would not have erased Mac Donald’s statements, nor have had any impact in terms of educating students on opinions opposing her controversial views. Similar actions have been taken in recent years against Emory building namesakes, but with more merit. While Schwartz was affiliated with Mac Donald, other namesakes are perpetrators of atrocious historical iniquities.
In contrast to the Mac Donald uproar, Fenves announced the renaming of Longstreet-Means Hall in June 2021 to recognize and outwardly condemn the history of ownership of enslaved peoples of former University Presidents Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Alexander Means. This is a different kind of deplatforming action, one taken in recognition of historical evils and carefully acted upon. While renaming is one side of the deplatforming argument, social media policy is an even more pressing issue. Now that we’ve discussed two instances of deplatforming in action within our community, let’s talk about Twitter and why I’m in between.
The most compelling argument for limiting the reach of social media platforms with policy changes is best articulated by none other than comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In a 2019 speech for the Anti-Defamation League, he cautioned the public against a full acceptance of “the greatest propaganda machine in history.” Later, he expressed his dismay and lack of surprise at the amount of antisemitism disseminated through social media. Well, if I had to have placed a bet on which celebrity would make antisemitism cool again, it would not have been Ye.
For the past month, Ye has increasingly expressed his belief in a new form of “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an antisemitic conspiracy theory. His statements have united both sides of the political extremes, garnering support from far-left and far-right terrorist groups. Ye has spread his message on social media platforms, specifically Twitter. The question: does he have a right to continue spreading his bigotry? The answer: probably not.
I have no interest in whether Ye believes that Jewish people control the media. If anything, as a proud Jew, I’ll take it as a compliment. What I do take issue with is his influence on Twitter users practically salivating for new conspiracies. Most people don’t have Jews on their mind, and in the context of more than 2,000 years of antisemitism, that’s what I’d prefer. I’d rather the same people who consume QAnon propaganda not be pushed toward prolific antisemitic conspiracies. Ye is pushing lies toward thirsty scrollers and is doing so with an algorithm designed to boost controversial opinions. We can acknowledge this truth and also acknowledge that Twitter shouldn’t be all-powerful in deciding who has the right to a platform. The precedent for censoring dangerous posts is difficult to justify, and with free speech advocate Musk at the helm, Twitter’s responsibilities are blurred. Musk has promised reforms on how user bans have been implemented in the past, none more notorious than the expulsion of former President Donald Trump. Trump’s Twitter fate is symbolic of the larger question of who can be banned. Clearly, the answer is: whoever they want.
When far-right rioters stormed the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots.” Twitter subsequently banned his account, citing the “risk of further incitement of violence.” This sentiment made sense at the time, with the question of future violent actions still unsure. Additionally, any legal implications assumed as a result of Twitter’s censorship are questionable at best. As a private company, Twitter reserves the right to feature whatever speech they want. From a business perspective, these choices of censorship policy would realistically encourage advertising in any way possible. As Musk has taken over, his assumptions of supply and demand in regard to Twitter usership have been his greatest hiccup. Advertisers are Twitter’s most significant source of revenue, and the role of CEO has traditionally been to increase advertiser demand. Musk has chosen a different route.
Musk tweeted recently about how activist groups were pressuring advertisers into pausing Twitter ads, making up more than 90% of Twitter’s revenue. If this surprises him, he clearly has rose-colored glasses on in his view of the free market. Advertisers will follow the clicks regardless of political implications. Freedom of expression is a value of extreme importance, regardless of legal responsibility, and Musk’s goal of Twitter as a public square is admirable, ideally what social media would be. However, despite his virtuous goals, he may be losing touch with Twitter’s model. Should Trump be suspended almost two years after his damning tweet? Probably not. However, the car company whose ad gets screenshotted next to Trump’s next outburst might feel differently.
I have more faith in Musk’s handling of Twitter’s management than many users whose political views skew left. He seems to be committed to a trial and error approach to find what aspects of Twitter policy appeals most to users, and honestly, this strategy is far from the worst one could apply to social media. Despite a rocky start, I believe Musk will begin finding success in his path. Whatever his personal political views, he considers impartial discussion his purpose, and he’s right; we will be best served by conversing with an open mind rather than a report button.
Ben Brodsky (25B) is from Scottsdale, Arizona
Ben Brodsky is a Creative Writing major from Scottsdale, Arizona. When not writing about Jay-Z, he enjoys Philadelphia sports, playing basketball, and graphic designing. In 2020, he wrote and illustrated "The Hip Hop Picture Book," a children's book setting hip-hop artists in their songs. His music blog, SHEESH Hip Hop, has been retweeted by artists like Freddie Gibbs and Killer Mike, and he was followed by popular music critic Anthony Fantano for some time.