Political Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Recently, YouTube joined the political social media fray when they blocked the Russian Parliament channel. This triggered my thoughts on the politics of social media in general. The first truly effective social media political machine of which I was aware was when Obama first ran for office. He used it very effectively to reach his constituents, giving them a voice and keeping them informed. Although I’m sure he used it to convey his platform (or components thereof), I am not aware of it as being particularly propaganda based. At the time (circa 2008), it felt more like an experiment, at least to me personally. He did take some heat for using it as he did, since, fourteen years ago, it felt somehow “young”, and too gimmicky for a serious politician. And yet, he proved it to be an effective way to motivate people and get people to the voting booths.
The fact is that internet chat has been around since the UNIX operating system was introduced circa 1980. Unlike the Microsoft or Apple operating system, UNIX was designed specifically for networking, and the ability to chat over the computer was a natural part of that development. By comparison, it took another twenty years for MSN Messenger to make an appearance, circa 2000. This was followed by other services such as Yahoo chat. When I was first introduced to Unix operating systems, some time around 1983 in a VAX computer room (a large number of terminals in a room all connected to the campus UNIX computer), we had email, chat, and a variety of features (such as “ping” and “finger”) that are still not found on Microsoft systems. But to be fair, the original purpose of Microsoft was for an individual computer, not networking.
After proving their effectiveness at campaigning by Obama, Trump took to twitter in an effort to capitalize as Obama had. Unfortunately, Trump also used it to spread false information about the Coronavirus and the Covid-19 vaccine and conspiracy theories about his political rivals from right-wing extremists. As post after post from the then-president had been disproved and demonstrated as conspiracy propaganda, eventually platforms began restricting, and even suspending, his accounts.
This is a significant thing. It might be easily dismissed as ridiculous, but the reality is that these private companies were restricting the accounts of the President of the United States. This is a David and Goliath act, and they had the right to do so. These platforms are privately owned, and those of us that use them agree to abide by their rules, but it’s important to note that these were not political moves. Every time, the action was justified by the companies as a violation of their rules, either through spreading misinformation, or hate speech (yes, from the president), or inciting violence (yes, from the president, again). As much as Trump whined and screamed about it being politically motivated, it was based on his actions and the violation of the companies’ policies of use. And, yes, it was political because of his position, but not politically motivated.
The former president is now trying (and failing) to launch his own chat site, which he claims is based on the right of free speech. Ironically, in the terms for using that app the users all agree that they will say nothing negative about Trump or they will be kicked off of the site. To me, that doesn’t sound much like free speech, but it is his site, so he has the right to these restrictions, just as the sites he was removed from had the right to remove those who promote hate and violence.
The intention of these sites may not be to engage in politics (or may be in the case of Trump’s app), but the reality is that when they take actions on politicians, like it or not, they’re involved in politics. The decision by YouTube to remove the Russian parliament page was political as well, whether or not that was the intention. As Russia continues its war in the Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Parliament have a tight grip on Russian news and are only releasing the propaganda that they want their people to hear, including how well the campaign is going, and how justified and critical it is. Even with their control over media, the Russian people are hearing bits of reality and have already had protests and demonstrations against the war, quickly squashed, no doubt, and with many arrests. Here in the US, there are politicians that are continuing to sing the praises of Putin even as evidence is gathered of brutal war crimes and the claims of justification are being demonstrated as fabrications. No doubt, YouTube removed the page for spreading false information and inciting violence. I guess, if Russia wants to continue to spread hate, they have a safe haven to do so on Trump’s media platform as long as they don’t mind the wait to gain access.