Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Donald Trump Just Can’t Quit Zuckerberg and Dorsey

Really, he can’t.

That might be one way of trying to grok the stunt of a lawsuit that the former president filed yesterday against Facebook and Twitter, as well as Google’s YouTube, for kicking him to the curb in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

With zero appetite for becoming handmaidens to sedition by allowing Donald Trump to continue abusing the rules of their powerful platforms, they finally made the decision to dump him — Twitter permanently, YouTube indefinitely and Facebook for two years.

Since then, Mr. Trump has been casting around for a replacement: First via a lame blog that sputtered out and then by dribbling out rumors that he was building his own social network. As that has turned out to be complicated, his latest scheme — and it is a scheme, all right — is to file a class-action lawsuit with himself as lead plaintiff, alleging that the companies have violated his First Amendment rights.

As if.

It’s clear that Mr. Trump’s ability to communicate the way he likes — loud, unfettered — has been hindered by his exile, even if his most pernicious lies about election fraud have managed to crawl, like misinformation slime mold, into a large part of the body politic. And part of me thinks he actually had gotten addicted, like a lot of us, to erupting at any time, day or night, with whatever message popped into his manic mind.

But the lawsuit is most obviously a feint aimed at fund-raising — texts asking for donations went out as soon as Mr. Trump’s news conference started — and to up the grievance knob on his base of supporters, who have come to believe that social media platforms are our new public squares.

Unfortunately for Mr. Trump’s legal case, they are not. Only public squares are public squares. Like it or not, private companies can do whatever they want when it comes to making rules and tossing off incorrigible miscreants.

Like, of course, Mr. Trump, who appears to have a comprehension issue when it comes to reading our Constitution. “Congress shall make no law,” the First Amendment says, “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Congress, not Facebook. Congress, not Twitter. Congress, not YouTube.

In fact, a government forcing these platforms to host people they don’t want to host is a violation of their First Amendment rights. But not according to Mr. Trump, whose most inane allegation in the lawsuits is aimed at Facebook: He argues that its “status thus rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor.”

They are state actors as much as Mar-a-Lago is one, which would mean under this legal analysis that I have a right to join even if Mr. Trump does not want me there to enjoy Six Star Seafood Night Wednesday evenings on the patio. But to that I say: Give me “two-pound lobsters, freshly grilled fish and meat items, salads and a dessert bar, accompanied by a saxophonist under the stars” or give me death (by indigestion)!

Naturally, most legal scholars reacting to the case noted that similar attempts to make tech giants into governmental entities had failed miserably and concluded that it is a frivolous attempt at garnering attention.

Still, it’s not necessarily a stupid thing to use Big Tech as a punching bag, which is not a new thing for Mr. Trump and many others in politics. Florida’s governor and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, signed the equally performative Stop Social Media Censorship Act in May, which sought to bar certain social media sites from banning political candidates. It has been blocked by a federal judge on several grounds.

Both legal outbursts are trying to tap into the idea that we simply cannot live without tech and have a right to be on social media sites because of the ubiquity of tech in work, politics, entertainment, communications and commerce. It has certainly felt truer than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic, when digital services became a necessity for almost everyone.

But feelings aren’t facts. And what is at issue is really the concentration of power that both Republicans and Democrats have allowed to happen in the tech industry. Their longtime inaction has left consumers, including Mr. Trump, very few alternatives across a range of areas.

A better route of attack for him and others bellyaching about their being made irrelevant by our digital overlords is to perhaps pass the wide range of bipartisan legislation slowly coalescing in Congress to deal with a wide range of issues such as monopoly power and the lack of resources for regulators who have to monitor powerful corporations.

Of course, ever the shortcut taker and consistently shoddy at execution, Mr. Trump has chosen to create a time-wasting circus when it comes reining in tech power, which is his modus operandi. He did it when it came to investigating the potential dangers of TikTok’s Chinese ownership, he did it when it came to needed upgrades to the cloud capabilities of the Defense Department, he did when it came to putting cyberdefenses in place, and he did it when it came to needed reforms of Section 230, which gives tech digital platforms broad immunity from legal action, as well as the ability to moderate content and punish bad actors.

Here’s what’s actually going on: Mr. Trump has behaved badly for years and now is paying a price he is trying to avoid, as always.

“Our case will prove this censorship is unlawful, unconstitutional and completely un-American,” he said. “If they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone.”

Yes, they can, Mr. Trump, and you can keep your lobster, too.

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