13 January 2021
Nina Fortune looks at how workers, not companies, helped remove Donald Trump from his platforms, and what this means for the fight against creeping fascism.
For those who watched American president Donald Trump’s attempted coup in horror, the predictions of creeping fascism made during the last four years seem prescient. Some on the left have long identified Trump as a fascist and predicted that, should he not win the 2020 elections, he might employ other means to hold on to power. The ragtag gang of terrorists who attempted to storm the Capitol, among them those aiming to kill and hang members of congress, have been compared to Hitler’s Beer Putsch nearly one hundred years ago. It was the first step, in an attempt to consolidate power, to fell the democracy most Americans believed they lived under securely.
I’m not so naïve as to believe that America was ever the greatest democracy on earth, as it was barely 55 years ago that Black people in the American south could first reliably vote. (After the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.) But visions of what American democracy is, and what it could be, now hang in the balance as many of us tune in regularly to headlines to find out if Trump has ruined the last vestige of decency in the office of the president. Therefore, we need to speak about what has transpired in the last few days.
On 9 January 2021, Twitter joined Facebook in de-platforming Donald Trump and thereby cutting off his dangerous rhetoric, which they believed could galvanise further violence and insurgency. This move seems too little too late, but the timidity is easy to explain. There is a material conflict of interest in removing a cash cow like Trump from this platform. Twitter immediately saw its stock prices fall 6% following the decision, and the drop has continued. After all, his followers allegedly accounted for nearly 50% of Twitter’s advertising revenue. This was a move counter to Twitter’s and Facebook’s shareholder interests and profits.
In fact, the delay in banning Trump suggests that left to their own devices, this move would not have been taken at all. On the contrary, both Twitter and Facebook were driven by a growing movement of workers, pressuring their company’s executives to take a moral line, something previously considered untenable within that capitalist infrastructure.
both Twitter and Facebook were driven by a growing movement of workers, pressuring their company’s executives to take a moral line, something previously considered untenable within that capitalist infrastructure.
In Twitter’s case, it was a letter signed by 350 employees asking that CEO Jack Dorsey act to stop Trump using his platform to incite further violence. Facebook encountered a similar employee-led push to ban Donald Trump from the platform over many months, and recent riots at Capitol Hill sealed the president’s fate. Twitter and Facebook are the highest-profile of these tech companies to be compelled by employee grievances, to toe an unprofitable moral line, but in recent days many others, such as Amazon and Snapchat, followed suit.
This moment should not be overlooked in what it represents for workers’ rights and potential. Workers, previously seen as utterly disempowered, are finding new ways to assert their voice. In an age of union-busting laws and unscrupulous company practices, such a trend is encouraging, as workers, in realising their power, are increasingly holding their company executives to account for egregious abuses of power and disregard for integrity.
But this is very much a moment, and indeed, one whose momentum must not be allowed to slow. The countervailing forces of capitalist greed are already on the move to rein it in. Not two days after op-ed pieces across the media spectrum trembled with indignation at Trump’s continued tenure in office, condemning his complicity in the Capitol riots, some right-wing papers are now questioning whether Trump’s ban is a step too far. The same people who celebrated the possibility of Trump being removed from office, are now indignant at the possibility of ‘censorship’ of Trump’s social media platform. If this position seems contradictory to the ordinary person, I would not blame them. This is because the interests of capital are realising what potential lies in these worker-led initiatives, such as those employed by Twitter and Facebook, and believe it to be dangerous to their class interests.
The onslaught of mostly right and centre-right media criticising Big Tech for blocking Trump’s hate speech, days after celebrating the prospect of his forceful removal, is insidious. The Coronavirus context has often seen fewer workers being asked to do more, after their colleagues were dispensed as collateral at the height of the pandemic. These workers now occupy a strange and precarious stage, one that has more power concentrated in their collective body, but that feels ephemeral.
The onslaught of mostly right and centre-right media criticising Big Tech for blocking Trump’s hate speech, days after celebrating the prospect of his forceful removal, is insidious.
In some industries, the capitalist class is experiencing the pressure of an emboldened workforce, one that bands together to make demands on them that were previously thought impossible. And so, when large media outlets contradict themselves in the span of days, they are not doing so out of folly, but rather the fear of where the impetus for Trump’s silencing is coming from. Had the decision to ban Trump come from a resolution driven entirely by board members, we would be hearing the resounding praise of these companies, for exercising long-overdue diligence. But because these changes have come from below, from the workers united, we are seeing a resistance that superficially defies reason after media outlets acknowledged that Trump’s continued access to social media could galvanise violence in an already unstable situation.
So where do we go from here? While I believe that the feat accomplished by the workers of the aforementioned tech companies is praiseworthy, it is too early to consider it a done deal. However, left movements should recognise this as a fresh opportunity, where workers’ unity can be strengthened, so that they might stand against unscrupulous company practices. The capitalist class and its ability to divide and conquer is wavering, as the cost required to divide the workers has increased.
This is an opportune moment to galvanise workers’ unity inside and outside of unions. As the employees at big tech companies have shown, fighting back is not as impossible as previously believed. However, more groundwork is needed to foster this unity, as well as an awareness of broader company practices, which employees can leverage for change.
Finally, it is not to politicians or celebrity CEOs that we should look to for signs of hope. Capitalist markets and liberal regimes helped give birth to Trumpism, providing the preconditions for the emergence of creeping fascism through class warfare from above and social decay. However, workers, those who make this world through their labour (those who make the digital world too), when they act in concert and are aware of their real strength, have the potential not only to disempower would be fascists like Trump, but to replace them with a new society that would never countenance his like again.
Nina Fortune is one of the authors of a soon to be released book System Crash: An Activist Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution.